Dead Man's Rock by Arthur Quiller-Couch

BOOK II
THE FINDING OF THE GREAT RUBY

CHAPTER III
TELLS AN OLD STORY IN THE TRADITIONAL MANNER


When Tom asked me where I was going, I had suggested an excursion up the river; though, to tell the truth, this answer had come with the question. Be that as it may, the afternoon of that same Sunday found me on the left bank of the Thames between Streatley and Pangbourne; found me, with my boat moored idly by, stretched on my back amid the undergrowth, and easefully staring upward through a trellis-work of branches into the heavens. I had been lying there a full hour wondering vaguely of my last night's adventure, listening to the spring-time chorus of the birds, lazily and listlessly watching a bough that bent and waved its fan of foliage across my face, or the twinkle of the tireless kingfisher flashing down-stream in loops of light, when a blackbird lit on a branch hard by my left hand, and, all unconscious of an audience, began to pour forth his rapture to the day.

Lying there I could spy his black body and yellow bill, and drink in his song with dreamy content. So sweetly and delicately was he fluting, that by degrees slumber crept gently and unperceived upon my tired brain; and as the health-giving distillation of the melody stole upon my parched senses, I fell into a deep sleep.

What was that? Music? Yes, but not the song of my friend the black-bird, not the mellow note that had wooed me to slumber and haunted my dreams. Music? Yes, but the voice was human, and the song articulate. I started, and rose upon my elbow to listen. The voice was human beyond a doubt—sweetly human: it was that of a girl singing. But where? I looked around and saw nobody. Yet the singer could not be far off, for the words, though softly and gently sung, dwelt clearly and distinctly upon my ear. Still half asleep, I sank back again and listened.

"Flower of the May,
Saw ye one pass?
'Love passed to-day
While the dawn was,
O, but the eyes of him shone as a glass.'"

The low, delicate notes came tremulous through the thicket. The blackbird was hushed, the trees overhead swayed soundlessly, and when the voice fell and paused, so deep was the silence that involuntarily I held my breath and waited. Presently it broke out again—

"Bird of the thorn,
What his attire?
'Lo! it was torn,
Marred with the mire,
And but the eyes of him sparkled with fire.'"

Again the voice died away in soft cadences, and again all was silence. I rose once more upon my elbow, and gazed into the green depths of the wood; but saw only the blackbird perched upon a twig and listening with head askew.

"Flower of the May,
Bird of the—"

The voice quivered, trailed off and stopped. I heard a rustling of leaves to the right, and then the same voice broke out in prose, in very agitated and piteous prose—"Oh, my boat! my boat! What shall I do?"

I jumped to my feet, caught a glimpse of something white, and of two startled but appealing eyes, then tore down to the bank. There, already twenty yards downstream, placidly floated the boat, its painter trailing from the bows, and its whole behaviour pointing to a leisurely but firm resolve to visit Pangbourne.

My own boat was close at hand. But when did hot youth behave with thought in a like case? I did as ninety-nine in a hundred would do. I took off my coat, kicked off my shoes, and as the voice cried, "Oh, please, do not trouble," plunged into the water. The refractory boat, once on its way, was in no great hurry, and allowed itself to be overtaken with great good-humour. I clambered in over the stern, caught up the sculls which lay across the thwarts, and, dripping but triumphant, brought my captive back to shore.

"How can I thank you?"

If my face was red as I looked up, it must be remembered that I had to stoop to make the boat fast. If my eyes had a tendency to look down again, it must be borne in mind that the water from my hair was dripping into them. They gazed for a moment, however, and this was what they saw:—

At first only another pair of eyes, of dark grey eyes twinkling with a touch of merriment, though full at the same time of honest gratitude. It was some time before I clearly understood that these eyes belonged to a face, and that face the fairest that ever looked on a summer day. First, as my gaze dropped before that vision of radiant beauty, it saw only an exquisite figure draped in a dress of some white and filmy stuff, and swathed around the shoulders with a downy shawl, white also, across which fell one ravishing lock of waving brown, shining golden in the kiss of the now drooping sun. Then the gaze fell lower, lighted upon a little foot thrust slightly forward for steadiness on the bank's verge, and there rested.

So we stood facing one another—Hero and Leander, save that Leander found the effects of his bath more discomposing than the poets give any hint of. So we stood, she smiling and I dripping, while the blackbird, robbed of the song's ending, took up his own tale anew, and, being now on his mettle, tried a few variations. So, for all power I had of speech, might we have stood until to-day had not the voice repeated—

"How can I thank you?"

I looked up. Yes, she was beautiful, past all criticism—not tall, but in pose and figure queenly beyond words. Under the brim of her straw hat the waving hair fell loosely, but not so loosely as to hide the broad brow arching over lashes of deepest brown. Into the eyes I dared not look again, but the lips were full and curling with humour, the chin delicately poised over the most perfect of necks. In her right hand she held a carelessly-plucked creeper that strayed down the white of her dress and drooped over the high firm instep. And so my gaze dropped to earth again. Pity me. I had scarcely spoken to woman before, never to beauty. Tongue-tied and dripping I stood there, yet was half inclined to run away.

"And yet, why did you make yourself so wet? Have you no boat? Is not that your boat lying there under the bank?" There was an amused tremor in the speech.

Somehow I felt absurdly guilty. She must have mistaken my glance, for she went on:—"Is it that you wish—?" and began to search in the pocket of her gown.

"No, no," I cried, "not that."

I had forgotten the raggedness of my clothes, now hideously emphasised by my bath. Of course she took me for a beggar. Why not? I looked like one. But as the thought flashed upon me it brought unutterable humiliation. She must have divined something of the agony in my eyes, for a tiny hand was suddenly laid on my arm and the voice said—

"Please, forgive me; I was stupid, and am so sorry."

Forgive her? I looked up for an instant and now her lids drooped in their turn. There was a silence between us for a moment or two, broken only by the blackbird, by this time entangled in a maze of difficult variations. Presently she glanced up again, and the grey eyes were now chastely merry.

"But it was odd to swim when your boat was close at hand, was it not?"

I looked, faltered, met her honest glance, and we both broke out into shy laughter. A mad desire to seize the little hand that for a moment had rested on my arm caught hold of me.

"Yes, it was odd," I answered slowly and with difficulty; "but it seemed—the only thing to do at the time."

She laughed a low laugh again.

"Do you generally behave like that?"

"I don't know."

There was a pause and then I added—

"You see, you took me by surprise."

"Where were you when I first called?" she asked.

"Lying in the grass close by."

"Then"—with a vivid blush—"you must have—"

"Heard you singing? Yes."

"Oh!"

Again there was a pause, and this time the blackbird executed an elaborate exercise with much delicacy and finish. The brown lashes drooped, the lovely eyes were bent on the grass, and the little hand swung the creeper nervously backward and forward.

"Why did you not warn me that I had an audience?"

"Because, in the first place, I was too late. When you began I was—"

"What?" she asked as I hesitated.

"Asleep."

"And I disturbed you. I am so sorry."

"I am not."

I was growing bolder as she became more embarrassed. I looked down upon her now from my superior height, and my heart went out to worship the grace of God's handiwork. With a touch of resentment she drew herself up, held out her hand, and said somewhat proudly—

"I thank you, sir, for this service."

I took the hand, but not the hint. It was an infinitesimal hand as it lay in my big brown one, and yet it stung my frame as with some delicious and electric shock. My heart beat wildly and my eyes remained fixed upon hers.

The colour on the fair face deepened a shade: the little chin was raised a full inch, and the voice became perceptibly icy.

"I must go, sir. I hope I have thanked you as far as I can, and—"

"And what?"

"Forgive me that I was about to offer you money."

The hat's brim bent now, but under it I could see the honest eyes full of pain.

"Forgive you!" I cried. "Who am I to forgive you? You were right: I am no better than a beggar."

The red lips quivered and broke into a smile; a tiny dimple appeared, vanished and reappeared; the hat's brim nodded again, and then the eyes sparkled into laughter—

"A sturdy beggar, at any rate."

It was the poorest little joke, but love is not exacting of wit. Again we both laughed, but this time with more relief, and yet the embarrassment that followed was greater.

"Must you go?" I asked as I bent down to pull the boat in.

"I really must," she answered shyly; and then as she pulled out a tiny watch at her waist—"Oh! I am late—so late. I shall keep mother waiting and make her lose the train. What shall I do? Oh, pray, sir, be quick!"

A mad hope coursed through me; I pointed to the boat and said—

"I have made it so wet. If you are late, better let me row you. Where are you going?"

"To Streatley; but I cannot—"

"I also am going to Streatley. Please let me row you: I will not speak if you wish it."

Over her face, now so beautifully agitated, swept the rarest of blushes. "Oh no, it is not that, but I can manage quite well"—her manner gave the lie to her brave words—"and I shall not mind the wet."

"If I have not offended you, let me row."

"No, no."

"Then I have offended."

"Please do not think so."

"I shall if you will not let me row."

Before my persistency she wavered and was conquered. "But my boat?" she said.

"I will tow it behind"—and in the glad success of my hopes I allowed her no time for further parley, but ran off for my own boat, tied the two together, and gently helped her to her seat. Was ever moment so sweet? Did ever little palm rest in more eager hand than hers in mine during that one heavenly moment? Did ever heart beat so tumultuously as mine, as I pushed the boat from under the boughs and began to row?

Somehow, as we floated up the still river, a hush fell upon us. She was idly trailing her hand in the stream and watching the ripple as it broke and sparkled through her fingers. Her long lashes drooped down upon her cheek and veiled her eyes, whilst I sat drinking in her beauty and afraid by a word to break the spell.

Presently she glanced up, met my burning eyes, and looked down abashed.

"Forgive me, I could not help it."

She tried to meet the meaning of that sentence with a steady look, but broke down, and as the warm blood surged across her face, bent her eyes to the water again. For myself, I knew of nothing to say in extenuation of my speech. My lips would have cried her mercy, but no words came. I fell to rowing harder, and the silence that fell upon us was unbroken. The sun sank and suddenly the earth grew cold and grey, the piping of the birds died wholly out, the water-flags shivered and whispered before the footsteps of night. Slowly, very slowly the twilight hung its curtains around us. Swiftly, too swiftly the quiet village drew near, but my thoughts were neither of the village nor the night. As I sat and pulled silently upwards, life was entirely changing for me. Old thoughts, old passions, old aims and musings slipped from me and swept off my soul as the darkening river swept down into further night.

"Streatley! So soon! We are in time, then."

Humbly my heart thanked her for those words, "So soon." I gave her my hand to help her ashore, and, as I did so, said—

"You will forgive me?"

"For getting wet in my service? What is there to forgive?"

Oh, cruelly kind! The moon was up now and threw its full radiance on her face as she turned to go. My eyes were speaking imploringly, but she persisted in ignoring their appeal.

"You often come here?"

"Oh, no! Sunday is my holiday; I am not so idle always. But mother loves to come here on Sundays. Ah, how I have neglected her to-day!" There was a world of self-reproach in her speech, and again she would have withdrawn her hand and gone.

"One moment," said I, hoarsely. "Will you—can you—tell me your name?"

There was a demure smile on her face as the moon kissed it, and—

"They call me Claire," she said.

"Claire," I murmured, half to myself.

"And yours?" she asked.

"Jasper—Jasper Trenoweth."

"Then good-bye, Mr. Jasper Trenoweth. Goodbye, and once more I thank you."

She was gone; and standing stupid and alone I watched her graceful figure fade into the shadow and take with it the light and joy of my life.

"Jasper," said Tom, as I lounged into our wretched garret, "have you ever known what it is to suffer from the responsibility of wealth? I do not mean a few paltry sovereigns; but do you know what it is to live with, say, three thousand four hundred and sixty-five pounds thirteen and sixpence on your conscience?"

"No," I said; "I cannot say that I have. But why that extraordinary sum?"

"Because that is the sum which has been hanging all day around me as a mill-stone. Because that is the exact amount which at present makes me fear to look my fellow-man in the face."

I simply stared.

"Jasper, you are singularly dense, or much success has turned your brain. Say, Jasper, that success has not turned your brain."

"Not that I know of," I replied.

"Very well, then," said Tom, stepping to the bed and pulling back the counterpane with much mystery. "Oblige me by counting this sum, first the notes, then the gold, and finally the silver. Or, if that is too much trouble, reflect that on this modest couch recline bank-notes for three thousand one hundred and twenty pounds, gold sovereigns to the number of three hundred and forty-two, whence by an easy subtraction sum we obtain a remainder of silver, in value three pounds thirteen and sixpence."

"But, Tom, surely we never won all that?"

"We did though, and may for the rest of our days settle down as comparatively honest medical students. So that I propose we have supper, and drink—for I have provided drink—to the Luck of the Golden Clasp."

Stunned with the events of the last twenty-four hours, I sat down to table, but could scarcely touch my food. Tom's tongue went ceaselessly, now apologising for the fare, now entertaining imaginary guests, and always addressing me as a man of great wealth and property.

"Jasper," he remarked at length, "either you are ill, or you must have been eating to excess all day."

"Neither."

"Do I gather that you wish to leave the table, and pursue your mortal foe up and down Oxford Street?"

I shook my head.

"What! no revenge to-night? No thirst for blood?"

"Tom," I replied, solemnly, "neither to-night nor any other night. My revenge is dead."

"Dear me! when did it take place? It must have been very sudden."

"It died to-day."

"Jasper," said Tom, laying his hand on my shoulder, "either wealth has turned your brain, or most remarkably given you sanity."



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