Dead Man's Rock by Arthur Quiller-Couch



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 candelabrum.

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 alertness.

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 Loveday—

"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 me.

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 ear—

"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 fellow.

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 murmured—

"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?"

"It is."

"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."

"Poor boy!"

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 resumed.

"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."

"Poor boy!"

"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."

"And after?"

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 friendship."

"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 try.

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 another chance."

"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 asked—

"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 marked 13.

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 with you."

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?"

"Jasper Trenoweth."

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 lasts?"

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 black.

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 more?"

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 once more."

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?"

"Not very."

"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 gaming-table.

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 calm.

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 pulled up.

"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 pavement.

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 said—

"Let us get home. It would not do for us to be seen with this money about us."

We crossed the Strand, and turned off it to the door of our lodgings. There I stopped.

"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 you."

Tom looked up at the gleam of sunshine that touched the chimney-pots above, and decided.

"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 deserted street.

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