Dead Man's Rock by Arthur Quiller-Couch



Seeing that these pages do not profess to be an autobiography, but rather the plain chronicle of certain events connected with the Great Ruby of Ceylon, I conceive myself entitled to the reader's pardon if I do some violence to the art of the narrator, and here ask leave to pass by, with but slight allusion, some fourteen years. This I do because the influence of this mysterious jewel, although it has indelibly coloured my life, has been sensibly exercised during two periods alone—periods short in themselves, but nevertheless long enough to determine between them every current of my destiny, and to supply an interpretation for my every action.

I am the more concerned with advertising the reader of this, as on looking back upon what I have written with an eye as far as may be impartial, I have not failed to note one obvious criticism that will be passed upon me. "How," it will be asked, "could any boy barely eight years of age conceive the thoughts and entertain the emotions there attributed to Jasper Trenoweth?"

The criticism is just as well as obvious. As a solitary man for ever brooding on the past, I will not deny that I may have been led to paint that past in colours other than its own. Indeed, it would be little short of a miracle were this not so. A morbid soul—and I will admit that mine is morbid—preying upon its recollections, and nourished on that food alone, cannot hope to attain the sense of proportion which is the proper gift of varied experience. I readily grant, therefore, that the lights and shades on this picture may be wrong, as judged by the ordinary eye, but I do claim them to be a faithful reproduction of my own vision. As I look back I find them absolutely truthful, nor can I give the lie to my own impressions in the endeavour to write what shall seem true to the rest of the world.

This must be, therefore, my excuse for asking the reader to pass by fourteen years and take up the tale far from Lantrig. But before I plunge again into my story, it is right that I should briefly touch on the chief events that occurred during this interval in my life.

They buried my father and mother in the same grave in Polkimbra Churchyard. I remember now that crowds of fisher-folk lined the way to their last resting-place, and a host, as it seemed to me, of tear-stained faces watched the coffins laid in the earth. But all else is a blurred picture to me, as, indeed, is the time for many a long day after.

Colliver was never found. Captain Merrydew raised the hue and cry, but the sailor Georgio Rhodojani was never seen again from the moment when his evil face leered in through the window of Lantrig. A reward was offered, and more than once Polkimbra was excited with the news of his arrest, but it all came to nothing. Failing his capture, Uncle Loveday was wisely silent on the subject of my father's Journal and the secret of the Great Ruby. He had not been idle, however. After long consultation with Aunt Elizabeth he posted off to Plymouth to gain news of Lucy Railton and her daughter, but without success. The "Welcome Home" still stood upon the Barbican, but the house was in possession of new tenants, and neither they nor their landlord could tell anything of the Railtons except that they had left suddenly about two months before (that being the date of the wreck of the Belle Fortune) after paying their rent to the end of the Christmas quarter. The landlord could give no reasons for their departure—for the house had a fair trade—but supposed that the husband must have returned from sea and taken them away. Uncle Loveday, of course, knew better, but on this point held his peace. The one result of all his inquiries was the certainty that the Railtons had vanished utterly.

So Lantrig, for the preservation of which my father had given his life, was sold to strangers, and I went to live with Aunt and Uncle Loveday at Lizard Town. The proceeds of the sale (and they were small indeed) Uncle Loveday put carefully by until such time as I should be cast upon the world to seek my fortune. For twelve uneventful years my aunt fed me, and uncle taught me—being no mean scholar, especially in Latin, which tongue he took great pains to make me perfect in. Thomas Loveday was my only companion, and soon became my dear friend. Poor Tom! I can see his handsome face before me now as it was in those old days—the dreamy eyes, the rare smile with its faint suggestion of mockery, the fair curls in which a breeze seemed for ever blowing, the pursed lips that had a habit of saying such wonderful things. In my dreams—those few dreams of mine that are happy—we are always boys together, climbing the cliffs for eggs, or risking our lives in Uncle Loveday's boat—always boys together. Poor Tom! Poor Tom!

So the unmarked time rolled on, until there came a memorable day in July on which I must touch for a moment. It was evening. I was returning with Tom to Lizard Town from Dead Man's Rock, where we had been basking all the sunny afternoon, Tom reading, and I simply staring vacantly into the heavens and wondering when the time would come that should set me free to unravel the mystery of this ill-omened spot. Finally, after taking our fill of idleness, we bathed as the sun was setting; and I remember wondering, as I dived off the black ledge, whether beneath me there lay any relic of the Belle Fortune, any fragment that might preserve some record of her end. I had dived here often enough, but found nothing, nor could I see anything to-day but the clean sand twinkling beneath its veil of blue, though here, as I guessed, must still lie the bones of John Railton. But I must hasten. We were returning over the Downs when suddenly I spied a small figure running towards us, and making frantic signals of distress.

"That," said I, "from the shape of it, must be Joe Roscorla."

And Joe Roscorla it was, only by no means the Joe Roscorla of ordinary life, but a galvanised and gesticulating Joe, whereas the Joe that we knew was of a lethargic bearing and slow habit of speech. Still, it was he, and as he came up to us he stayed all questioning by gasping out the word "Missus!" and then falling into a violent fit of coughing.

"Well, what is amiss?" asked Tom.

"Took wi' a seizure, an' maister like a thing mazed," blurted Joe, and then fell to panting and coughing worse than ever.

"What! a seizure? paralysis do you mean?" I asked, while Tom turned white.

"Just a seizure, and I ha'n't got time for no longer name. But run if 'ee want to see her alive."

We ran without further speech, Joe keeping at our side for a minute, but soon dropping behind and fading into distance. As we entered the door Uncle Loveday met us, and I saw by his face that Aunt Elizabeth was dead.

She had been in the kitchen busied with our supper, when she suddenly fell down and died in a few minutes. Heart disease was the cause, but in our part people only die of three complaints—a seizure, an inflammation, or a decline. The difference between these is purely one of time, so that Joe Roscorla, learning the suddenness of the attack, judged it forthwith a case of "seizure," and had so reported.

My poor aunt was dead; and until now we had never known how we loved her. Like so many of the Trenoweths she seemed hard and reserved to many, but we who had lived with her had learnt the goodness of her soul and the sincerity of her religion. The grief of her husband was her noblest epitaph.

He, poor man, was inconsolable. Without his wife he seemed as one deprived of most of his limbs, and moved helplessly about, as though life were now without purpose. Accustomed to be ruled by her at every turn, he missed her in every action of the day. Very swiftly he sank, of no assigned complaint, and within six months was laid beside her.

On his death-bed my uncle seemed strangely troubled about us. Tom was to be a doctor. My destiny was not so certain; but already I had renounced in my heart an inglorious life in Lizard Town. I longed to go with Tom; in London, too, I thought I should be free to follow the purpose of my life. But the question was, how should I find the money? For I knew that the sum obtained by the sale of Lantrig was miserably insufficient. So I sat with idle hands and waited for destiny; nor did I realise my helplessness until I stood in the room where Uncle Loveday lay dying.

"Tom," said my uncle, "Tom, come closer."

Tom bent over the bed.

"I am leaving you two boys without friends in this world. You have friends in Lizard Town, but Lizard Town is a small world, Tom. I ought to have sent you to London before, but kept putting off the parting. If one could only foresee—could only foresee."

He raised himself slightly on his elbow, and continued with pain—

"You will go to Guy's, and Jasper, I hope, may go with you. Be friends, boys; you will want friendship in this world. It will be a struggle, for there is barely enough for both. But it is best to share equally; she would have wished that. She was always planning that. I am doing it badly, I know, but she would have done it better."

The chill December sun came stealing in and illumined the sick man's face with a light that was the shadow of heaven. The strange doctor moved to the blind. My uncle's voice arrested him—

"No, no. Leave it up. You will have to pull it down very soon—only a few moments now. Tom, come closer. You have been a good boy, Tom, a good boy, though"—with a faint smile—"a little trying at times. Ah, but she forgave you, Tom. She loved you dearly; she will tell me so—when we meet."

My uncle's gaze began to wander, as though anticipating that meeting; but he roused himself and said—

"Kiss me, Tom, and send Jasper to me."

Bitterly weeping, Tom made room, and I bent over the bed.

"Ah, Jasper, it is you. Kiss me, boy. I have been telling Tom that you must share alike. God has been stern with you, Jasper, to His own good ends—His own good ends. Only be patient, it will come right at the last. How dark it is getting; pull up the blind."

"The blind is up, uncle."

"Ah, yes, I forgot. I have often thought—do you remember that day— reading your father's paper—and the key?"

"Yes, uncle."

"I have often thought—about that key—which you flung into the fire—and I picked out—your father Ezekiel's key—keep it. Closer, Jasper, closer—"

I bent down until my ear almost touched his lips.

"I have—often—thought—we were wrong that night—and perhaps— meant—search—in …"

For quite a minute I bent to catch the next word, then looking on his face withdrew my arm and laid the grey head back upon the pillow.

My uncle was dead.

So it happened that a few weeks after Tom and I, having found Uncle Loveday's savings equally divided between us, started from Lizard Town by coach to seek our fortunes in London. In London it is that I must resume my tale. Of our early mishaps and misadventures I need not speak, the result being discernible as the story progresses. We did not find our fortunes, but we found some wisdom. Neither Tom nor I ever confessed to disappointment at finding the pavements of mere stone, but certainly two more absolute Whittingtons never trod the streets of the great city.

But before I resume I must say a few words of myself. No reader can gather the true moral of this narrative who does not take into account the effect which the cruel death of my parents had wrought on me. From the day of the wreck hate had been my constant companion, cherished and nursed in my heart until it held complete mastery over all other passions. I lived, so I told myself over and over again, but to avenge, to seek Simon Colliver high and low until I held him at my mercy. Thousands of times I rehearsed the scene of our meeting, and always I held the knife which stabbed my father. In my waking thoughts, in my dreams, I was always pursuing, and Colliver for ever fleeing before me. In every crowd I seemed to watch for his face alone, at every street-corner to listen for his voice—that face, that voice, which I should know among thousands. I had read De Quincey's "Opium-Eater," and the picture of his unresting search for his lost Ann somehow seized upon my imagination. Night after night it was to Oxford Street that my devil drove me: night after night I paced the "never-ending terraces," as did the opium-eater, on my tireless quest—but with feelings how different! To me it was but one long thirst of hatred, the long avenues of gaslight vistas of an avenging hell, all the multitudinous sounds of life but the chorus of that song to which my footsteps trod—

"Sing ho! but he waits for you."

To London had Simon Colliver come, and somewhere, some day, he would be mine. Until that day I sought a living face in a city of dead men, and down that illimitable slope to Holborn, and back again, I would tramp until the pavements were silent and deserted, then seek my lodging and throw myself exhausted on the bed.

In a dingy garret, looking out, when its grimy panes allowed, above one of the many squalid streets that feed the main artery of the Strand, my story begins anew. The furniture of the room relieves me of the task of word-painting, being more effectively described by catalogue, after the manner of the ships at Troy. It consisted of two small beds, one rickety washstand, one wooden chair, and one tin candlestick. At the present moment this last held a flickering dip, for it was ten o'clock on the night of May the ninth, eighteen hundred and sixty-three. On the chair sat Tom, turning excitedly the leaves of a prodigiously imposing manuscript. I was sitting on the edge of the bed nearest the candle, brooding on my hate as usual.

Fortune had evidently dealt us some rough knocks. We were dressed, as Tom put it, to suit the furniture, and did it to a nicety. We were fed, according to the same authority, above our income; but not often. I also quote Tom in saying that we were living rather fast: we certainly saw no long prospect before us. In short, matters had reached a crisis.

Tom looked up from his reading.

"Do you know, Jasper, I could wish that our wash-stand had not a hole cut in it to receive the basin. It sounds hyper-critical. But really it prejudices me in the eyes of the managers. There's a suspicious bulge in the middle of the paper that is damning."

I was absorbed in my own thoughts, and took no notice. Presently he continued—

"Whittington is an overrated character, don't you think? After all he owed his success to his name. It's a great thing for struggling youth to have a three-syllabled name with a proparoxyton accent. I've been listening to the bells to-night and they can make nothing of Loveday, while as for Trenoweth, it's hopeless."

As I still remained silent, Tom proceeded to announce—

"The House will now go into the Question of Supply."

"The Exchequer," I reported, "contains exactly sixteen and eightpence halfpenny."

"Rent having been duly paid to-day and receipt given."

"Receipt given," I echoed.

"Really, when one comes to think of it, the situation is striking. Here are you, Jasper Trenoweth, inheritor of the Great Ruby of Ceylon, besides other treasure too paltry to mention, in danger of starving in a garret. Here am I, Thomas Loveday, author of 'Francesca: a Tragedy,' and other masterpieces too numerous to catalogue, with every prospect of sharing your fate. The situation is striking, Jasper, you'll allow."

"What did the manager say about it?" I asked.

"Only just enough to show he had not looked at it. He was more occupied with my appearance; and yet we agreed before I set out that your trousers might have been made for me. They are the most specious articles in our joint wardrobe: I thought to myself as walked along to-day, Jasper, that after all it is not the coat that makes the gentleman—it's the trousers. Now, in the matter of boots, I surpass you. If yours decay at their present rate, your walks in Oxford Street will become a luxury." I was silent again.

"I do not recollect any case in fiction of a man being baulked of his revenge for the want of a pair of boots. Cheer up, Jasper, boy," he continued, rising and placing a hand on my shoulder. "We have been fools, and have paid for it. You thought you could find your enemy in London, and find the hiding-place too big. I thought I could write, and find I cannot. As for legitimate work, sixteen and eightpence halfpenny, even with economy, will hardly carry us on for three years."

I rose. "I will have one more walk in Oxford Street," I said, "and then come home and see this miserable farce of starvation out."

"Don't be a fool, Jasper. It is difficult, I know, to perish with dignity on sixteen and eightpence halfpenny: the odd coppers spoil the effect. Still we might bestow them on a less squeamish beggar and redeem our pride."

"Tom," I said, suddenly, "you lost a lot of money once over rouge-et-noir."

"Don't remind me of that, Jasper."

"No, no; but where did you lose it?"

"At a gambling hell off Leicester Square. But why—"

"Should you know the place again? Could you find it?"


"Then let us go and try our luck with this miserable sum."

"Don't be a fool, Jasper. What mad notion has taken you now?"

"I have never gambled in my life," I answered, "and may as well have a little excitement before the end comes. It's not much of a sum, as you say; but the thought that we are playing for life or death may make up for that. Let us start at once."

"It is the maddest folly."

"Very well, Tom, we will share this. There may be some little difficulty over the halfpenny, but I don't mind throwing that in. We will take half each, and you can hoard whilst I tempt fortune."

"Jasper," said Tom, his eyes filling with tears, "you have said a hard thing, but I know you don't mean it. If you are absolutely set on this silly freak, we will stand or fall together."

"Very well," said I, "we will stand or fall together, for I am perfectly serious. The six and eightpence halfpenny, no more and no less, I propose to spend in supper. After that we shall be better prepared to face our chance. Do you agree?"

"I agree," said Tom, sadly.

We took our hats, extinguished the candle, and stumbled down the stairs into the night.

We ordered supper at an eating-house in the Strand, and in all my life I cannot recall a merrier meal than this, which, for all we knew, would be our last. The very thought lent a touch of bravado to my humour, and presently Tom caught the infection. It was not a sumptuous meal in itself, but princely to our ordinary fare; and the unaccustomed taste of beer loosened our tongues, until our mirth fairly astonished our fellow-diners. At length the waiter came with the news that it was time for closing. Tom called for the bill, and finding that it came to half-a-crown apiece, ordered two sixpenny cigars, and tossed the odd eightpence halfpenny to the waiter, announcing at the same time that this was our last meal on earth. This done, he gravely handed me four half-crowns, and rose to leave. I rose also, and once more we stepped into the night.

Since the days of which I write, Leicester Square has greatly changed. Then it was an intricate, and, by night, even a dangerous quarter, chiefly given over to foreigners. As we trudged through innumerable by-streets and squalid alleys, I wondered if Tom had not forgotten his way. At length, however, we turned up a blind alley, lit by one struggling gas-jet, and knocked at a low door. It was opened almost immediately, and we groped our way up another black passage to a second door. Here Tom gave three knocks very loud and distinct. A voice cried, "Open," the door swung back before us, and a blaze of light flashed in our faces.

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