Dead Man's Rock by Arthur Quiller-Couch

BOOK II
THE FINDING OF THE GREAT RUBY

CHAPTER IV
TELLS HOW I SAW THE SHADOW OF THE ROCK;
AND HOW I TOLD AND HEARD NEWS


A week passed, and in the interval Tom and I made several discoveries. In the first place, to our great relief, we discovered that the bank-notes were received in Threadneedle Street without question or demur. Secondly, we found our present lodgings narrow, and therefore moved westward to St. James's. Further, it struck us that our clothes would have to conform to the "demands of more Occidental civilisation," as Tom put it, and also that unless we intended to be medical students for ever it was necessary to become medical men. Lastly, it began to dawn upon Tom that "Francesca: a Tragedy" was a somewhat turgid performance, and on me that a holiday on Sunday was demanded by six days of work.

I do not know that we displayed any remarkable interest in the Materia Medica, or that the authorities of Guy's looked upon us as likely to do them any singular credit. But Tom, who had now a writing-desk, made great alterations in "Francesca," while I consumed vast quantities of tobacco in the endeavour to reproduce a certain face in my note-book; and I am certain that the resolution to take a holiday on Sunday was as strong at the end of the first week as though I had wrought my faculties to the verge of brain fever.

I did not see her on that Sunday, or the next, though twice my boat explored the river between Goring and Pangbourne from early morning until nightfall. But let me hasten over heart-aching and bitterness, and come to the blessed Sunday when for a second time I saw my love.

Again the day was radiant with summer. Above, the vaulted blue arched to a capstone of noonday gold. Hardly a fleecy cloud troubled the height of heaven, or blotted the stream's clear mirror; save here and there where the warm air danced and quivered over the still meadows, the season's colour lay equal upon earth. Before me the river wound silently into the sunny solitude of space untroubled by sight of human form.

But what was that speck of white far down the bank—that brighter spot upon the universal brightness, moving, advancing? My heart gave one great leap; in a moment my boat's bows were high upon the crumbling bank, and I was gazing down the tow-path.

Yes, it was she! From a thousand thousand I could tell that perfect form as it loitered—how slowly—up the river's verge. Along heaven's boundary the day was lit with glory for me, and all the glory but a golden frame for that white speck so carelessly approaching. Still and mute I stood as it drew nearer—so still, so mute, that a lazy pike thrust out its wolfish jaws just under my feet and, seeing me, splashed under again in great discomposure; so motionless that a blundering swallow all but darted against me, then swept curving to the water, and vanished down the stream.

She had been gathering May-blossom, and held a cluster in one hand. As before, her gown was purest white, and, as before, a nodding hat guarded her fair face jealously.

Nearer and nearer she came, glanced carelessly at me who stood bare-headed in the sun's glare, was passing, and glanced again, hesitated for one agonising moment, and then, as our eyes met, shot out a kindly flash of remembrance, followed by the sweetest of little blushes.

"So you are here again," she said, as she gave her hand, and her voice made exquisite music in my ear.

"Again?" I said, slowly releasing her fingers as a miser might part with treasure. "Again? I have been here every Sunday since."

"Dear me! is it so long ago? Only three weeks after all. I remember, because—"

The fleeting hope possessed me that it might be some recollection in which I had place, but my illusion was swiftly shattered.

"Because," the pitiless sentence continued, "mother was not well that evening; in fact, she has been ill ever since. So it is only three weeks."

"Only three weeks!" I echoed.

"Yes," she nodded. "I have not seen the river for all that time. Is it changed?"

"Sadly changed."

"How?"

"Perhaps I have changed."

"Well, I hope so," she laughed, "after that wetting;" then, seeing an indignant flash in my eyes, she added quickly, "which you got by so kindly bringing back my boat."

"You have not been rowing to-day?"

"No; see, I have been gathering the last of the May-blossom. May is all but dead."

"And 'Flower of the May'?"

"Please do not remind me of that foolish song. Had I known, I would not have sung it for worlds."

"I would not for worlds have missed it."

Again she frowned and now turned to go. "And you, too, must make these speeches!"

The world of reproach in her tone was at once gall and honey to me. Gall, because the "you too" conjured up a host of jealous imaginings; honey, because it was revealed that of me she had hoped for better. And now like a fool I had flung her good opinion away and she was leaving me.

I made a half-step forward.

"I must go now," she said, and the little hand was held out in token of farewell.

"No! no! I have offended you."

No answer.

"I have offended you," I insisted, still holding her hand.

"I forgive you. But, indeed, I must go." The hand made a faint struggle to be free.

"Why?"

My voice came hard and unnatural. I still held the fingers, and as I did so, felt the embarrassment of utter shyness pass over the bridge of our two hands and settle chokingly upon my heart.

"Why?" I repeated, more hoarsely yet.

"Because—because I must not neglect mother again. She is waiting."

"Then let me go with you."

"Oh, no! Some day—if we meet—I will introduce you."

"Why not now?"

"Because she is not well."

Even my lately-acquired knowledge of the Materia Medico, scarcely warranted me in offering to cure her. But I did.

She laughed shyly and said, "How, sir; are you a doctor?"

"Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor, gentleman, apothecary," I said lightly, "neither one nor the other, but that curious compound of the two last—a medical student."

"Then I will not trust you," she answered, smiling.

"Better trust me," I said; and something in my words again made her look down.

"You will trust me?" I pleaded, and the something in my words grew plainer.

Still no answer.

"Oh, trust me!"

The hand quivered in mine an instant, the eyes looked up and laughed once more. "I will trust you," she said—"not to move from this spot until I am out of sight."

Then with a light "Good-bye" she was gone, and I was left to vaguely comprehend my loss.

Before long I had seen her a third time and yet once again. I had learnt her name to be Luttrell—Claire Luttrell; how often did I not say the words over to myself? I had also confided in Tom and received his hearty condolence, Tom being in that stage of youth which despises all of which it knows nothing—love especially, as a thing contrary to nature's uniformity. So Tom was youthfully cynical, and therefore by strange inference put on the airs of superior age; was also sceptical of my description, especially a certain comparison of her eyes to stars, though a very similar trope occurred somewhere in the tragedy. Indeed therein Francesca's eyes were likened to the Pleiads, being apparently (as I pointed out with some asperity) seven in number, and one of them lost.

I had also seen Mrs. Luttrell, a worn and timid woman, with weak blue eyes and all the manner of the professional invalid. I say this now, but in those days she was in my eyes a celestial being mysteriously clothed in earth's infirmities—as how should the mother of Claire be anything else? Somehow I won the favour of this faded creature— chiefly, I suspect, because she liked so well to be left alone. All day long she would sit contentedly watching the river and waiting for Claire, yet only anxious that Claire should be happy. All her heart centred on her child, and often, in spite of our friendliness, I caught her glancing from Claire to me with a jealous look, as though the mother guessed what the child suspected but dimly, if at all.

So the summer slipped away, all too fleetly—to me, as I look back after these weary years, in a day. But nevertheless much happened: not much that need be written down in bald and pitiless prose, but much to me who counted and treasured every moment that held my darling near me. So the Loves through that golden season wound us round with their invisible chains and hovered smiling and waiting. So we drifted week after week upon the river, each time nearer and nearer to the harbour of confession. The end was surely coming, and at last it came.

It was a gorgeous August evening. A week before she had told me that Saturday would be a holiday for her, and had, when pressed, admitted a design of spending it upon the river. Need it be confessed that Saturday saw me also in my boat, expectant? And when she came and feigned pretty astonishment at meeting me, and scepticism as to my doing any work throughout the week, need I say the explanation took time and seemed to me best delivered in a boat? At any rate, so it was; and somehow, the explanation took such a vast amount of time, that the sun was already plunging down the western slope of heaven when we stepped ashore almost on the very spot where first I had heard her voice.

As the first film of evening came creeping over earth, there fell a hush between us. A blackbird—the same, I verily believe—took the opportunity to welcome us. His note was no longer full and unstudied as in May. The summer was nearly over, and with it his voice was failing; but he did his best, and something in the hospitality of his song prompted me to break the silence.

"This is the very spot on which we met for the first time—do you remember?"

"Of course I remember," was the simple answer.

"You do?" I foolishly burned to hear the assurance again.

"Of course—it was such a lovely day."

"A blessed day," I answered, "the most blessed of my life."

There was a long pause here, and even the blackbird could hardly fill it up.

"Do you regret it?"

(Why does man on these occasions ask such a heap of questions?)

"Why should I?"

(Why does woman invariably answer his query with another?)

"I hope there is no reason," I answered, "and yet—oh, can you not see of what that day was the beginning? Can you not see whither these last four months have carried me?"

The sun struck slanting on the water and ran in tapering lustre to our feet. The gilded ripple slipped and murmured below us; the bronzed leaves overhead bent carefully to veil her answer. The bird within the covert uttered an anxious note.

"They have carried you, it seems," she answered, with eyes gently lowered, "back to the same place."

"They have carried me," I echoed, "from spring to summer. If they have brought me back to this spot, it is because the place and I have changed—Claire!"

As I called her by her Christian name she gave one quick glance, and then turned her eyes away again. I could see the soft rose creeping over her white neck and cheek. Had I offended? Between hope and desperation, I continued—

"Claire—I will call you Claire, for that was the name you told me just four months ago—I am changed, oh, changed past all remembrance! Are you not changed at all? Am I still nothing to you?"

She put up her hand as if to ward off further speech, but spoke no word herself.

"Answer me, Claire; give me some answer if only a word. Am I still no more than the beggar who rescued your boat that day?"

"Of course, you are my friend—now. Please forget that I took you for a beggar."

The words came with effort. Within the bushes the blackbird still chirped expectant, and the ripple below murmured to the bank, "The old story—the old story."

"But I am a beggar," I broke out. "Claire, I am always a beggar on my knees before you. Oh, Claire!"

Her face was yet more averted—the sun kissed her waving locks with soft lips of gold, the breeze half stirred the delicate draperies around her. The blackbird's note was broken and halting as my own speech.

"Claire, have you not guessed? will you never guess? Oh, have pity on me!"

I could see the soft bosom heaving now. The little hand was pulling at the gown. Her whole sweet shape drooped away from me in vague alarm—but still no answer came.

"Courage! Courage!" chirped the bird, and the river murmured responsive, "Courage!"

"Claire!"—and now there was a ring of agony in the voice; the tones came alien and scarcely recognised—"Claire, I have watched and waited for this day, and now that it has come, for good or for evil, answer me—I love you!"

O time-honoured and most simple of propositions! "I love you!" Night after night had I lain upon my bed rehearsing speeches, tender, passionate and florid, and lo! to this had it all come—to these three words, which, as my lips uttered them, made my heart leap in awe of their crude and naked daring.

And she? The words, as though they smote her, chased for an instant the rich blood from her cheek. For a moment the bosom heaved wildly, then the colour came slowly back, and ebbed again. A soft tremor shook the bending form, the little hand clutched the gown, but she made no answer.

"Speak to me, Claire! I love you! With my life and soul I love you. Can you not care for me?" I took the little hand. "Claire, my heart is in your hands—do with it what you will, but speak to me. Can you not—do you not—care for me?"

The head drooped lower yet, the warm fingers quivered within mine, then tightened, and—

What was that whisper, that less than whisper, for which I bent my head? Had I heard aright? Or why was it that the figure drooped closer, and the bird's note sprang up jubilant?

"Claire!"

A moment—one tremulous, heart-shaking moment—and then her form bent to me, abandoned, conquered; her face looked up, then sank upon my breast; but before it sank I read upon it a tenderness and a passion infinite, and caught in her eyes the perfect light of love.

As the glory of delight came flooding on my soul, the sun's disc dropped, and the first cold shadow of night fell upon earth. The blackbird uttered a broken "Amen," and was gone no man knew whither. The golden ripple passed up the river, and vanished in a leaden grey. One low shuddering sigh swept through the trees, then all was dumb. I looked westward. Towards the horizon the blue of day was fading downwards through indistinguishable zones of purple, amethyst, and palest rose, the whole heaven arching in one perfect rainbow of love.

But while I looked and listened to the beating of that beloved heart girdled with my arm, there grew a something on the western sky that well-nigh turned my own heart to marble. At first, a lightest shadow—a mere breath upon heaven's mirror, no more. Then as I gazed, it deepened, gathering all shadows from around the pole, heaping, massing, wreathing them around one spot in the troubled west—a shape that grew and threatened and still grew, until I looked on—what?

Up from the calm sea of air rose one solitary island, black and looming, rose and took shape and stood out—the very form and semblance of Dead Man's Rock! Sable and real as death it towered there against the pale evening, until its shadow, falling on my heart itself and on the soft brown head that bent and nestled there, lay round us clasped so, and with its frown cursed the morning of our love.

Something in my heart's beat, or in the stiffening of my arm, must have startled my darling, for as I gazed I felt her stir, and, looking down, caught her eyes turned wistfully upwards. My lips bent to hers.

"Mine, Claire! Mine for ever!"

And there, beneath the shadow of the Rock, our lips drew closer, met, and were locked in their first kiss.

When I looked up again the shadow had vanished, and the west was grey and clear.

So in the tranquil evening we rowed homewards, our hearts too full for speech. The wan moon rose and trod the waters, but we had no thoughts, no eyes for her. Our eyes were looking into each other's depths, our thoughts no thoughts at all, but rather a dazzled and wondering awe.

Only as a light or two gleamed out, and Streatley twinkled in the distance, Claire said—

"Can it be true? You know nothing of me."

"I know you love me. What more should I know, or wish to know?"

The red lips were pursed in a manner that spoke whole tomes of wisdom.

"You do not know that I work for my living all the week?"

"When you are mine you shall work no more."

"'But sit on a cushion and sew a gold seam'? Ah, no; I have to work. It is strange," she said, musingly, "so strange."

"What is strange, Claire?"

"That you have never seen me except on my holidays—that we have never met. What have you done since you have been in London?"

I thought of my walks and tireless quest in Oxford Street with a kind of shame. That old life was severed from the present by whole worlds.

"I have lived very quietly," I answered. "But is it so strange that we have never met?"

She laughed a low and musical laugh, and as the boat drew shoreward and grounded, replied—

"Perhaps not. Come, let us go to mother—Jasper."

O sweet sound from sweetest lips! We stepped ashore, and hand-in-hand entered the room where her mother sat.

As she looked up and saw us standing there together, she knew the truth in a moment. Her blue eyes filled with sudden fear, her worn hand went upwards to her heart. Until that instant she had not known of my presence there that day, and in a flash divined its meaning.

"I feared it," she answered at length, as I told my story and stood waiting for an answer. "I feared it, and for long have been expecting it. Claire, my love, are you sure? Oh, be quite sure before you leave me."

For answer, Claire only knelt and flung her white arms round her mother's neck, and hid her face upon her mother's bosom.

"You love him now, you think; but, oh, be careful. Search your heart before you rob me of it. I have known love, too, Claire, or thought I did; and indeed it can fade—and then, what anguish, what anguish!"

"Mother, mother! I will never leave you."

Mrs. Luttrell sighed.

"Ah, child, it is your happiness I am thinking of."

"I will never leave you, mother."

"And you, sir," continued Mrs. Luttrell, "are you sure? I am giving you what is dearer than life itself; and as you value her now, treat her worthily hereafter. Swear this to me, if my gift is worth so much in your eyes. Sir, do you know—"

"Mother!"

Claire drew her mother's head down towards her and whispered in her ear. Mrs. Luttrell frowned, hesitated, and finally said—

"Well, it shall be as you wish—though I doubt if it be wise. God bless you, Claire—and you, sir; but oh, be certain, be certain!"

What incoherent speech I made in answer I know not, but my heart was sore for this poor soul. Claire turned her eyes to me and rose, smoothing her mother's grey locks.

"We will not leave her, will we? Tell her that we will not."

I echoed her words, and stepping to Mrs. Luttrell, took the frail, white hand.

"Sir," she said, "you who take her from me should be my bitterest foe. Yet see, I take you for a son."

Still rapt with the glory of my great triumph, and drunk with the passion of that farewell kiss, I walked into our lodgings and laid my hand on Tom's shoulder.

"Tom, I have news for you."

Tom started up. "And so have I for you."

"Great news."

"Glorious news!"

"Tom, listen: I am accepted."

"Bless my soul! Jasper, so am I."

"You?"

"Yes."

"When? Where?"

"This afternoon. Jasper, our success has come at last: for you the Loves, for me the Muses; for you the rose, for me the bay. Jasper, dear boy, they have learnt her worth at last."

"Her! Who?"

"Francesca. Jasper, in three months I shall be famous; for next November 'Francesca: a Tragedy' will be produced at the Coliseum."



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