Dead Man's Rock by Arthur Quiller-Couch
THE FINDING OF THE GREAT RUBY
TELLS OF THE LUCK OF THE GOLDEN CLASP
As the door swung back I became conscious first of a flood of light that
completely dazzled my eyes, next of the buzz of many voices that confused my
hearing. By slow degrees, however, the noise and glare grew familiar and my
senses were able to take in the strange scene.
I stood in a large room furnished after the fashion of a drawing-room, and
resplendent with candles and gilding. The carpet was rich, the walls were hung
with pictures, which if garish in colour were not tasteless in design, and
between these glittered a quantity of gilded mirrors that caught and reflected
the rays of a huge candelabrum depending from the centre of the ceiling.
Innumerable wax candles also shone in various parts of the room, while here and
there rich chairs and sofas were disposed; but these were for the most part
unoccupied, for the guests were clustered together beneath the great
They were about thirty in number, and from their appearance I judged them to
belong to very different classes of society. Some were poorly and even miserably
attired, others adorned with gorgeous, and not a few with valuable, jewellery.
Here stood one who from his clothes seemed to be a poor artisan; there lounged a
fop in evening dress. There was also a sprinkling of women, and not a few wore
masks of some black stuff concealing the upper part of their faces.
But the strangest feature of the company was that one and all were entirely
and even breathlessly watching the table in their midst. Even the idlest
scarcely raised his eyes to greet us as we entered, and for a moment or two I
paused at the door as one who had no business with this strange assemblage.
During these few moments I was able to grasp the main points of what I saw.
The guests were grouped around the table, some sitting and others standing
behind their chairs. The table itself was oblong in shape, and at its head sat
the most extraordinary woman it had ever been my lot to behold. She was of
immense age, and so wrinkled that her face seemed a very network of
deeply-printed lines. Her complexion, even in the candle-light, was of a deep
yellow, such as is rarely seen in the most jaundiced faces. Despite her age, her
features were bold and bore traces of a rare beauty outlived; her eyes were of a
deep yet glittering black, and as they flashed from the table to the faces of
her guests, seemed never to wink or change for an instant their look of intense
But what was most noteworthy in this strange woman was neither her eyes, her
wrinkles, nor her curious colour, but the amazing quantity of jewels that she
wore. As she sat there beneath the glare of the candelabrum she positively
blazed with gems. With every motion of her quick hands a hundred points of fire
leapt out from the diamonds on her fingers; with every turn of her wrinkled neck
the light played upon innumerable facets; and all the time those cold, lustrous
eyes scintillated as brightly as the stones. She was engaged in the game as we
entered, and turned her gaze upon us for an instant only, but that momentary
flash was so cold, so absolutely un-human, that I doubted if I looked upon
reality. The whole assembly seemed rather like a room full of condemned spirits,
with this woman sitting as presiding judge.
As we still stood by the door a hush fell on the company; men and women
seemed to catch their breath and bend more intently over the table. There was a
pause; then someone called the number "Thirty-one," and the buzz of voices broke
out again—a mixture of exclamations and disappointed murmurs. Then, and not till
then, did the woman at the head of the table speak, and when she spoke her words
were addressed to us.
"Come in, gentlemen, come in. You have not chosen your moment well, for the
Bank is winning; but you are none the less welcome."
Her eyes as she turned them again upon us did not alter their expression.
They were—though I can scarcely hope that this description will be understood—at
once perfectly vigilant and absolutely impassive. But even more amazing was the
voice that contradicted both these impressions, being most sweetly and
delicately modulated, with a musical ring that charmed the ear as the notes of a
well-sung song. The others, hearing us addressed, turned an incurious gaze upon
us for a moment, and then fastened their attention anew upon the table.
Thus welcomed, we too stepped forward to the centre of the room and began to
watch the game. I have never seen roulette played elsewhere, so do not know if
its accessories greatly vary, but this is what I saw.
The table, which I have described as oblong, was lined to the width of about
a foot around the edge with green baize, and on this were piled heaps of gold
and silver, some greater, some less. Sunk in the centre was a well, in which a
large needle revolved upon a pivot at a turn of the hand. The whole looked like
a large ship's compass, but instead of north, south, east, and west, the table
around the well, and at a level with the compass, was marked out into alternate
spaces of red and black, bearing—one on each space—the figures from 1 to 36, and
ending in 0, so that in all there were thirty-seven spaces, the one bearing the
cipher being opposite to the strange woman who presided. As the game began again
the players staked their money on one or another of these spaces. I also
gathered that they could stake on either black or red, or again on one of the
three dozens— 1 to 12, 13 to 24, 25 to 36. When all the money was staked, the
woman bent forward, and with a sweep of her arm sent the needle spinning round
upon its mission.
Thrice she did this, thrice the eager faces bent over the revolving needle,
and each time I gathered from the murmurs around me that the bank had won
heavily. At the end of the third round the hostess looked up and said to
"You have been here before, and, if I remember rightly, were unfortunate.
Come and sit near me when you have a chance, and perhaps you may break this run
of luck. Even I am tiring of it. Or better still, get that dark handsome friend
of yours to stake for you. Have you ever played before?" she asked, turning to
I shook my head.
"All the better. Fortune always favours beginners, and if it does I shall be
well recompensed to have so handsome a youth beside me," and with this she
turned to the game again.
At her right sat a grey-headed man with worn face and wolfish eyes, who might
have been expected to take this as a hint to make way. But he never heard a
word. All his sense was concentrated on the board before him, and his only
motion was to bend more closely and eagerly over the play. Tom whispered in my
"You have the money, Jasper; take her advice if you really mean to play this
farce out. Take the seat if you get a chance, and play your own game."
"You have been here before," I answered, "and know more about the game."
"Here before! Yes, to my cost. No, no, the idea of play is your own and you
shall carry it out. I am always unlucky, and as for knowledge of the game, you
can pick that up by watching a round or two; it's perfectly simple."
Again the bank had won. At the left hand of our hostess stood a stolid man
holding a small shovel with which he gathered in the winnings. All around were
faces as of souls in torture; even the features of the winners (and these were
few enough) scarcely expressed a trace of satisfaction, but seemed rather cast
into some horrible trance in which they saw nothing but the piles of coin, the
spinning needle, and the flashing hands of the woman that turned it. She all the
while sat passionless and cold, looking on the scene as might some glittering
and bejewelled sphinx.
As I gazed, as the needle whirled and stopped and once more whirled, the mad
excitement of the place came creeping upon me. The glittering fingers of our
hostess fascinated me as a serpent holds its prey. The stifling heat, the glare,
the confused murmurs mounted like strong wine into my brain. The clink and gleam
of the gold as it passed to and fro, the harsh voice of the man with the shovel
calling at intervals, "Put on your money, gentlemen," the mechanical progress of
the play, confused and staggered my senses. I forgot Tom, forgot the reason of
our coming, forgot even where I was, so absorbed was I, and craned forward over
the hurrying wheel, as intent as the veriest gambler present.
I was aroused from my stupor by a muttered curse, as the grey-headed man
before me staggered up from his chair, and left the table with desperate eyes
and stupid gait. As he rose the jewelled fingers made a slight motion, and I
dropped into the vacant seat.
The bank was still winning. At our hostess' left hand rose a swelling pile of
gold and silver that time after time absorbed all the smaller heaps upon the
black and red spaces. Meanwhile the woman had scarcely spoken, but as the needle
went round once more, slackened and stopped—this time amid deep and desperate
execrations—she turned to me and said—
"Now is your time to break the bank if you wish. Play boldly; I should like
to lose to so proper a man."
I looked back at Tom, who merely nodded, and put my first half-crown upon the
red space marked 19. My neighbour, without seeming to notice the smallness of
the sum, bent over the table and sent the wheel spinning on its errand. I, too,
bent forward to watch, and as the wheel halted, saw the coin swept, with many
more valuable, into the great pile.
"A bad beginning," said the sweet voice beside me. "Try again."
I tried again, and a third time, and two more half-crowns went to join their
There was one more chance. White with desperation I drew out my last
half-crown, and laid it on the black. A flash, and my neighbour's hand sent the
needle whirling. Round and round it went, as though it would never cease; round
and round, then slackened, slackened, hesitated and stopped—where?
Where but over the red square opposite me?
For a moment all things seemed to whirl and dance before me. The candles shot
out a million glancing rays, the table heaved, the rings upon the woman's
fingers glittered and sparkled, while opposite me the devilish finger of Fortune
pointed at the ruin of my hopes, and as it pointed past them and at me, called
me very fool.
I clutched the table's green border and sank back in my seat. As I did so I
heard a low curse from Tom behind me. The overwhelming truth broke in upon my
senses, chasing the blood from my face, the hope from my heart. Ruined! Ruined!
The faces around me grew blurred and misty, the room and all my surrounding
seemed to fade further and yet further away, leaving me face to face with the
consequences of my folly. Scarce knowing what I did, I turned to look at Tom,
and saw that his face was white and set. As I did so the musical voice beside me
"The game is waiting: are you going to stake this time?"
I stammered out a negative.
"What? already tired? A faint heart should not go with such a face," and
again she swept the pointer round.
"Is it," she whispered in my ear, "is it that you cannot?"
"Ah, it is hard with half-a-sovereign to break the bank. But see, have you
nothing—nothing? For I feel as if my luck were going to leave me."
"Nothing," I answered, "nothing in the world."
Her voice was tender and sympathetic, but in her eyes there glanced not the
faintest spark of mercy. I sat for a moment stunned and helpless, and then she
"Can I lend to you?"
"No, for I have no chance of repaying. This was my all, and it has gone. I
have not one penny left in the world."
"I thank you. I could not expect you to pity me, but—"
"Ah, but you are wrong. I pity you: I pity you all. Fools, fools, I call you
all, and yet I make my living out of you. So you cannot play," she added, as she
set the game going once again. "What will you do?"
"Go, first of all."
I shrugged my shoulders.
"No, do not go yet. Sit beside me for a while and watch: it is only Fortune
that makes me your enemy. I would willingly have lost to you."
She looked so curious, sitting there with her yellow face, her wrinkles and
her innumerable diamonds, that I could only sit and stare.
"I have seen many a desperate boy," continued this extraordinary woman,
"sitting beside me in that very chair. Ah, many a young life have I murdered in
this way. I am old, you see, very old; older even than you could guess, but I
triumph over youth none the less. Sometimes I feel as if I fed on the young
lives of others."
She delivered these confidences without a change in her emotionless face, and
still I stared fascinated.
"Ah, yes, they sit here for a moment, and then they go—who knows where? You
will be going presently, and then I shall lose you for ever, without a thought
of what happens to you. Money is my blood: you see its colour in my face. Here
they all come, and I suck their blood and fling them aside. They win sometimes;
but I can wait. I wait and wait, and they come back here as surely as there is a
destiny. They come back, and I win in the end. I always win in the end."
She turned her attention to the game for a moment and then went on:—
"It is a rare drink, this yellow blood: and all the sweeter when it comes
from youth. I have had but a drop from you, but I like you nevertheless. Oh,
yes, I can pity, my heart is always full of pity as I sit here drinking gold.
Your friend is a charming boy, but I like you better: and now you will go. These
partings are very cruel, are they not?"
There was not a trace of mockery in her voice, and her eyes were the same as
ever. I merely looked up in reply, but she divined my thoughts.
"No, I am not mocking you. I should like you to win—once: I say it, and am
perfectly honest about it. You would be beaten in the end, but it would please
me while it lasted. Has your friend no money?"
"No, this was all we had between us."
"So he came back and got you to play with your money. That was strange
"You are wrong," I answered, "he was set against coming; but I persuaded
him—or rather, I insisted. It is all my own fault."
"Well," she said, musingly, "I suppose you must, go; but it is a pity. You
are too handsome a boy to—to do what you will probably do: but the game does not
regard good looks, or it would fare badly with me. Good-bye."
Still there was no shadow of pity in those unfathomable eyes. I looked into
them for a moment, but their shining jet revealed nothing below the
surface—nothing but inexorable calm.
"Good-bye," I said, and rose to go, for Tom's hand was already on my
shoulder. I dared not look in his face. All hope was gone now, all wealth,
all—Stay! I put my fingers in my waistcoat-pocket and drew out the Golden Clasp.
Worthless to me as any sign of the hiding-place of the Great Ruby, it might yet
be worth something as metal. I had carried it ever since the day when Uncle
Loveday and I read my father's Journal. But what did it matter now? In a few
hours I should be beyond the hope of treasure. Might I not just as well fling
this accursed clasp after the rest? For aught I knew it might yet win something
back to me—that is, if anyone would accept it as money. At least I would
I sank back into my chair again. The woman turned her eyes upon me
carelessly, and said—
"What, back again so soon?"
"Yes," said I, somewhat taken aback by her coldness, "if you will give me
"I give nothing, least of all chance," she replied.
"Well, can you tell me if this is worth anything?"
As I said this I held out the clasp, which flashed brightly as it caught the
rays of the large candelabrum overhead. She turned her eyes upon it, and as she
did so, for the first time I fancied I caught a gleam of interest within them.
It was but a gleam, however, and died out instantly as she said—
"Let me look at it."
I handed it to her. She bent over it for a moment, then turned to me and
"Is this all of it? I mean that it seems only one half of a clasp. Have you
not the other part?"
I shook my head, and she continued—
"It is beautifully worked, and seems valuable. Do you wish me to buy it?"
"Not exactly that," I explained; "but if you think it worth anything I should
like to stake it against an equivalent."
"Very well; it might be worth three pounds—perhaps more: but you can stake it
for that if you will. Shall it be all at once?"
"Yes, let me have it over at once," I said, and placed it on the red square
She nodded, and bending over the table, set the pointer on its round.
This time I felt quite calm and cool. All the intoxication of play had gone
from me and left my nerves steady as iron. As the needle swung round I scarcely
looked at it, but fell to watching the faces of my fellow-gamblers with idle
interest. This stake would decide between life and death for me, but I did not
feel it. My passion had fallen upon an anti-climax, and I was even yawning when
the murmur of many voices, and a small pile of gold and silver at my side,
announced that I had won.
"So the luck was changed at last," said the woman. "Be brave whilst it is
In answer I again placed the clasp upon the number 13.
Once more I won, and this time heavily. Tom laid his hand upon my shoulder
and said, "Let us go," but I shook my head and went on.
Time after time I won now, until the pile beside me became immense. Again and
again Tom whispered in my ear that we had won enough and that luck would change
shortly, but I held on. And now the others surrounded me in a small crowd and
began to stake on the numbers I chose. Put the clasp where I would the needle
stopped in front of it. They brought a magnet to see if this curious piece of
metal had any power of attraction, but our hostess only laughed and assured them
at any rate there was no steel in the pointer, as (she added) some of them ought
to know by this time. When eight times I had put the buckle down and eight times
had found a fresh heap of coin at my side, she turned to me and said—
"You play bravely, young man. What is your name?"
Again I fancied I caught the gleam in her eyes; and this time it even seemed
as though her teeth shut tight as she heard the words. But she simply laughed a
tranquil laugh and said—
"A queer-sounding name, that Trenoweth. Is it a lucky one?"
"Never, until now," said I.
"Well, play on. It does my heart good, this fight between us. But you are
careful, I see; why don't you stake your pile as well while this wonderful run
Again Tom's hand was laid upon my shoulder, and this time his voice was
urgent. But I was completely deaf.
"As you please," said I, coldly, and laid the whole pile down upon the
It was madness. It was worse than madness. But I won again; and now the heap
of my winnings was enormous. I glanced at the strange woman; she sat as
impassive as ever.
"Play," said she.
Thrice more I won, and now the pile beside her had to be replenished. Yet she
moved not a muscle of her face, not a lash of her mysterious eyes.
At last, sick of success, I turned and said—
"I have had enough of this. Will it satisfy you if I stake it all once
Again she laughed. "You are brave, Mr. Trenoweth, and indeed worth the
fighting. You may win to-night, but I shall win in the end. I told you that I
would readily lose to you, and so I will; but you take me at my word with a
vengeance. Still, I should like to possess that clasp of yours, so let it be
I laid the whole of my winnings on the red. By this time all the guests had
gathered round to see the issue of this conflict. Not a soul put any money on
this turn of the wheel, so engrossed were they in the duel. Every face was white
with excitement, every lip quivered. Only we, the combatants, sat unmoved—I and
the strange woman with the unfathomable eyes.
"Red stands for many things," said she, as she lightly twirled the needle
round, "blood and rubies and lovers' lips. But black is the livery of Death, and
Death shall win them all in the end."
As the pointer of fortune circled on its last errand, I could catch the
stifled breath of the crowd about me, so deep was the hush that fell upon us
all. I felt Tom's hand tighten its clutch upon my shoulder. I heard, or fancied
I heard, the heart of the man upon my right thump against his ribs. I could feel
my own pulse beating all the while with steady and regular stroke. Somehow I
knew that I should win, and somehow it flashed upon me that she knew it too.
Even as the idea came darting across my brain, a multitude of pent-up cries
broke forth from thirty pairs of white lips. I scarcely looked to see the cause,
but as I turned to our hostess her eyes looked straight into mine and her sweet
voice rose above the din—
"Gentlemen, we have played enough to-night. The game is over."
I had broken the bank.
I stood with Tom gathering up my winnings as the crowd slowly melted from the
room, and as I did so, cast a glance at the woman whom I had thus defeated. She
was leaning back in her chair, apparently indifferent to her losses as to her
gains. Only her eyes were steadily fixed upon me as I shovelled the coin into my
pockets. As she caught my eye she pulled out a scrap of paper and a pencil,
scribbled a few words, tossed the note to the man with the shovel, who instantly
left the room, and said—
"Is it far from this place to your home?"
"That's well; but be careful. To win such a sum is only less dangerous than
to lose it. I shall see you again—you and your talisman. By the way, may I look
at it for a moment?"
We were alone in the room, we three. She took the clasp, looked at it
intently for a full minute, and then returned it. Already the dawn of another
day was peering in through the chinks in the blinds, giving a ghastly faintness
to the expiring candles, throwing a grey and sickening reality over the
scene—the disordered chairs, the floor strewn with scraps of paper, the signs
and relics of the debauchery of play. Ghastlier than all was the yellow face of
the woman in the pitiless light. But there she sat, seemingly untired, in all
the splendour of her flashing gems, as we left her—a very goddess of the
We had reached the door and were stepping into the darkness of the outer
passage, when Tom whispered—
"Be on your guard; that note meant mischief."
I nodded, swung open the door, and stepped out into the darkness. Even as I
did so, I heard one quick step at my left side, saw a faint gleam, and felt
myself violently struck upon the chest. For a moment I staggered back, and then
heard Tom rush past me and deal one crashing blow.
"Run, run! Down the passage, quick!"
In an instant we were tearing through the black darkness to the outer door,
but in that instant I could see, through the open door behind, in the glare of
all the candles, the figure of the yellow woman still sitting motionless and
We gained the door, and plunged into the bright daylight. Up the alley we
tore, out into the street, across it and down another, then through a perfect
maze of by-lanes. Tom led and I followed behind, panting and clutching my
bursting pockets lest the coin should tumble out. Still we tore on, although not
a footstep followed us, nor had we seen a soul since Tom struck my assailant
down. Spent and breathless at last we emerged upon the Strand, and here Tom
"The streets are wonderfully quiet," said he.
I thought for a moment and then said, "It is Sunday morning."
Scarcely were the words out of my mouth when I heard something ring upon the
pavement beside me. I stooped, and picked up—the Golden Clasp.
"Well," said I, "this is strange."
"Not at all," said Tom. "Look at your breast-pocket."
I looked and saw a short slit across my breast just above the heart. As I put
my hand up, a sovereign, and then another, rolled clinking on to the
Tom picked them up, and handing them to me, remarked—
"Jasper, you may thank Heaven to-day, if you are in a mood for it. You have
had a narrow escape."
"What do you mean?"
"Why, that you would be a dead man now had you not carried that piece of
metal in your breast-pocket. Let me see it for a moment."
We looked at it together, and there surely enough, almost in the centre of
the clasp, was a deep dent. We were silent for a minute or so, and then Tom
"Let us get home. It would not do for us to be seen with this money about
We crossed the Strand, and turned off it to the door of our lodgings. There I
"Tom, I am not coming in. I shall take a long walk and a bathe to get this
fearful night out of my head. You can take the money upstairs, and put it away
somewhere in hiding. Stay, I will keep a coin or two. Take the rest with
Tom looked up at the gleam of sunshine that touched the chimney-pots above,
"Well, for my part, I am going to bed; and so will you if you are wise."
"No. I will be back this evening, so let the fatted calf be prepared. I must
get out of this for a while."
"Where are you going?"
"Oh, anywhere. I don't care. Up the river, perhaps."
"You don't wish me to go with you?"
"No, I had rather be alone. Tom, I have been a fool. I led you into a hole
whence nothing but a marvellous chance has delivered us, and I owe you an
apology. And—Tom, I also owe you my life."
"Not to me, Jasper; to the Clasp."
"To you," I insisted. "Tom, I have been a thoughtless fool, and— Tom, that
was a splendid blow of yours."
He laughed, and ran upstairs, while I turned and gloomily sauntered down the