Dead Man's Rock by Arthur Quiller-Couch

BOOK II
THE FINDING OF THE GREAT RUBY

CHAPTER VI
TELLS HOW THE BLACK AND YELLOW FAN SENT A MESSAGE;
AND HOW I SAW A FACE IN THE FOG


As I sat stupefied our eyes met. It was but for an instant, but in that instant I saw that she recognised me and mutely challenged my verdict. Then she turned to Valentine.

The theatre rang with tumultuous plaudits as her song ended. I could feel Tom's grasp at my elbow, but I could neither echo the applause nor answer him. It was all so wildly, grotesquely improbable.

This then was my love, this the Claire whom I had wooed and won in the shy covert of Pangbourne Woods—this deified and transfigured being before whom thousands were hushed in awe. Those were the lips that had faltered in sweet confession—those before which the breath of thousands came and went in agitated wonder. It was incredible.

And then, as Tom's hand was laid upon my arm, it flashed upon me that the woman he loved was my plighted bride—and he knew nothing of it. As this broke upon me there swept over me an awful dread lest he should see my face and guess the truth. How could I tell him? Poor Tom! Poor Tom!

I turned my eyes upon Claire again. Yes, she was superb: beyond all challenge glorious. And all the more I felt as one who has betrayed his friend and is angry with fate for sealing such betrayal beyond revoke.

Whether Claire misinterpreted my look of utter stupefaction or not, I do not know; but as she turned and recognised Valentine there was a tremor in her voice which the audience mistook for art, though I knew it to be but too real. I tried to smile and to applaud, but neither eyes nor hand would obey my will; and so even Claire's acting became a reproach and an appeal to me, pleading forgiveness to which my soul cried assent though my voice denied it. Minute after minute I sat beneath an agonising spell I could not hope to break.

"Congratulate me, Jasper. What do you think of her?"

It was Tom's voice beside me. Congratulate him! I felt the meanest among men.

"She is—glorious," I stammered.

"I knew you would say so. Unbeliever, did ever man see such eyes? Confess now, what are Claire's beside them?"

"Claire's—are—much the same."

"Why, man, Claire's were deep grey but a day or two ago, and Clarissa's are the brownest of brown; but of course you cannot see from here."

Alas! I knew too surely the colour of Claire's eyes, so like brown in the blaze of the foot-lights. And her height—Tom had only seen her walk in tragic buskin. How fatally easy had the mistake been!

"Tom, your success is certain now."

"Yes, thanks to her. They were going to damn the play before she entered. I could see it. Did you see, Jasper? She looked this way for a moment. Do you think she meant to encourage me? By the way, have you caught sight of Claire yet?"

Oh, Tom, Tom, let me spare you for this night! My heart throbbed and something in my throat seemed choking me as I muttered, "Yes."

"Then do not stay congratulating me, but fly. Success spoils the lover. Ah, Jasper, if only Clarissa had summoned me! Hasten: I will keep my eye upon you and smile approval on your taste. Where is she?"

Again something seemed to catch me by the throat; I was struggling to answer when I heard a voice behind me say, "For you, sir," and a note was thrust into my hand. With beating heart I opened it, expecting to see Claire's handwriting. But the note was not from her. It was scribbled hastily with pencil in a bold hand, and ran thus:—

"An old friend wishes to see you. Come, if you have time. Box No. 7."

At first I thought the message must have reached me by mistake, but it was very plainly directed to "J. Trenoweth, Esq." I looked around for the messenger but found him gone, and fell to scanning the boxes once more.

As before, they were filled with strangers; and, as before, the black and yellow fan was waving slowly to and fro, as though the hand that wielded it was no hand at all, but rather some untiring machine. Still the owner remained invisible. I hesitated, reflected a moment, and decided that even a fool's errand was better than enduring the agony of Tom's rapture. I rose.

"I will be back again directly," I said, and then left him.

Still pondering on the meaning of this message, I made my way down the passages until I came to the doors of the boxes, and stopped opposite that labelled "No. 7." As I did so, it struck me that this, from its position, must be the one which contained the black and yellow fan. By this time thoroughly curious, I knocked.

"Come in," said a low voice which I seemed to remember.

I entered and found myself face to face with the yellow woman—the mistress of the gambling-hell.

She was seated there alone, slightly retired from the view of the house and in the shadow; but her arm, as it rested on the cushion, still swayed the black and yellow fan, and her diamonds sparkled lustrously as ever in the glare that beat into the box. Her dress, as if to emphasise the hideousness of her skin and form a staring contrast with her wrinkled face and white hair, was of black and yellow, in which she seemed some grisly corpse masquerading as youth.

Struck dumb by this apparition, I took the seat into which she motioned me, while her wonderful eyes regarded my face with stony impassiveness. I could hear the hoarse murmurs of the house and feel the stifling heat as it swept upwards from the pit. The strange woman did not stir except to keep up the ceaseless motion of her wrist.

For a full five minutes, as it seemed to me, we sat there silently regarding each other. Then at last she spoke, and the soft voice was as musically sympathetic as ever.

"You seem astonished to see me, Mr. Trenoweth, and yet I have been looking for you for a long time."

I bowed.

"I have been expecting you to give me a chance of redeeming my defeat."

"I am sorry," stammered I, not fully recovered from my surprise, "but that is not likely."

"No? From my point of view it was extremely likely. But somehow I had a suspicion that you would be different from the rest. Perhaps it was because I had set my heart upon your coming."

"I hope," said I, "that the money—"

She smiled and waved her hand slightly.

"Do not trouble about that. Had I chosen, I could have gone on losing to you until this moment. No, perhaps it was simply because you were least likely to do so, that I wished you to come back as all other young men would come back. I hope you reached home safely with what you won; but I need not ask that."

"Indeed you need. I was attacked as I left the room, and but for a lucky accident, should now be dead."

"Ah," she said placidly; "you suspect me. Don't say 'no,' for I can see you do. Nevertheless you are entirely wrong. Why, Mr. Trenoweth, had I chosen, do you think I could not have had you robbed before you had gone three paces from the house?"

This was said with such composure, and her eyes were so absolutely void of emotion, that I could but sit and gasp. Once more I recalled the moment when, as I fled down the dark passage, I had seen her sitting motionless and calm in the light of her countless candles.

"But do you think I sent for you to tell you that?" she continued. "I sent for you because you interested me, and because I want a talk with you. Hush! the curtain is rising for the second act. Let us resume when it has finished; you will not deny me that favour at least."

I bowed again, and was silent as the curtain rose—and once more Claire's superb voice thrilled the house. Surely man was seldom more strangely placed than was I, between the speech of my love and the eyes of this extraordinary woman. As I sat in the shadow and listened, I felt those blazing fires burning into my very soul; yet whenever I looked up and met them, their icy glitter baffled all interpretation. Still as I sat there, the voice of Claire came to me as though beseeching and praying for my judgment, and rising with the blaze of light and heated atmosphere of the house, swept into the box until I could bear the oppression no longer. She must have looked for me, and seeing my place empty, have guessed that I condemned her. Mad with the thought, I rose to my feet and stood for a minute full in the light of the theatre. It may not have been even a minute, but she saw me, and once more, as our gaze met, faltered for an instant. Then the voice rang out clear and true again, and I knew that all was well between us. Yet in her look there was something which I could not well interpret.

As I sank back in my seat, I met the eyes of my companion still impenetrably regarding me. But as the curtain fell she said quietly—

"So you know Clarissa Lambert?"

I stammered an affirmative.

"Well? You admire her acting?"

"I never saw it until to-night."

"That is strange; and yet you know her?"

I nodded.

"She is a great success—on which I congratulate myself, for I discovered her."

"You!" I could only exclaim.

"Yes, I. Is it so extraordinary? She and I are connected, so to speak; which makes it the more odd that she should never have mentioned you."

The eyes seemed now to be reading me as a book. I summoned all my courage and tried to return their steady stare. There was a pause, broken only by the light frou-frou of the fan, as it still waved slowly backwards and forwards. Among all the discoveries of this night, it was hard enough to summon reason, harder to utter speech.

"But you will be leaving me again if I do not explain why I sent for you. You are wondering now on my reasons. They are very simple— professional even, in part. In the first place, I wished to have a good look at you. Do you wonder why an old woman should wish to look upon a comely youth? Do not blush; but listen to my other and professional reason. I should greatly like, if I may, to look upon your talisman—that golden buckle or whatever it was that brought such marvellous luck. Is it on you to-night?"

I wore it, as a matter of fact, in my waistcoat pocket, attached to one end of my chain; but I hesitated for a moment.

"You need not be afraid," she said, and there was a suspicion of mockery in her tone. "I will return it, as I returned it before. But if you are reluctant to let me see it (and remember, I have seen it once), do not hesitate to refuse. I shall not be annoyed."

Reflecting that, after all, her curiosity was certain to be baffled, I handed her the Golden Clasp, with the chain, in silence.

"It is a curious relic," said she, as she slowly examined it and laid it on her lap for a moment. "If the question be allowed, how did you become possessed of it?"

"It belonged to my father," I answered.

"Excuse me," she said, deliberately, "that is hardly an answer to my question."

During the silence that followed, she took up the clasp again, and studied the writing. As she did so she used her right hand only; indeed, during the whole time, her left had been occupied with her tireless fan. I fancied, though I could not be certain, that it was waving slightly faster than before.

"The writing seems to be nonsense. What is this—'Moon end South—deep at point'? I can make no meaning of it. I suppose there is a meaning?"

"Not to my knowledge," said I, and immediately repented, for once more I seemed to catch that gleam in her eyes which had so baffled me when first she saw the Clasp. The curtain rose upon the third act of "Francesca," and we sat in silence, she with the Clasp lying upon her lap, I wondering by what possibility she could know anything about my father's secret. She could not, I determined. The whole history of the Golden Clasp made it impossible. And yet I repented my rashness. It was too late now, however; so, when the act was over I waited for her to speak.

"So this belonged to your father. Tell me, was he at all like you?"

"He was about my height, I should guess," said I, wondering at this new question; "but otherwise quite unlike. He was a fair man, I am dark."

"But your grandfather—was he not dark?"

"I believe so," I answered, "but really—"

"You wonder at my questions, of course. Never mind me; think me a witch, if you like. Do I not look a witch?"

Indeed she did, as she sat there. The diamonds flashed and gleamed, lighting up the awful colour of her skin until she seemed a very "Death-in-Life."

"I see that I puzzle you; but your looks, Mr. Trenoweth, are hardly complimentary. However, you are forgiven. Here, take your talisman, and guard it jealously; I thank you for showing it to me, but if I were you I should keep it secret. Shall I see you again? I suppose not. I am afraid I have made you miss some of the tragedy. You must pardon me for that, as I have waited long to see you. At any rate, there is the last act to come. Good-bye, and be careful of your talisman."

As she spoke, she shut her fan with a sharp click, and then it flashed upon me that it had never ceased its pendulous motion until that instant. It was a strange idea to strike me then, but a stranger yet succeeded. Was it that I heard a low mocking laugh within the box as I stepped out into the passage? I cannot clearly tell; perhaps it is but a fancy conjured up by later reflection on that meeting and its consequences. I only know that as I bowed and left her, the vision that I bore away was not of the gleaming gems, the yellow face, the white hair, or waving fan, but of two coal-black and impenetrable eyes.

I sought my place, and dropped into the seat beside Tom. The fourth act was beginning, so that I had time to speculate upon my interview, but could find no hope of solution. Finally, I abandoned guessing, to admire Claire. As the play went on, her acting grew more and more transcendent. Lines which I had heard from Tom's lips and scoffed at, were now fused with subtle meaning and passion. Scenes which I had condemned as awkward and heavy, became instinct with exquisite pathos. There comes a point in acting at which criticism ceases, content to wonder; this point it was clear that my love had touched. The new play was a triumphant success.

"So," said Tom, before the last act, "Claire carries a yellow fan, does she? I looked everywhere for you at first, and only caught sight of you for an instant by the merest chance. You behaved rather shabbily in giving me no chance of criticism, for I never caught a glimpse of her. I hope she admired—Hallo! she's gone!"

I followed his gaze, and saw that Box No. 7 was no longer occupied by the fan.

"I suppose you saw her off? Well, I do not admire your taste, I must confess—nor Claire's—to go when Francesca was beginning to touch her grandest height. Whew! you lovers make me blush for you."

"Tom." I said, anxious to lead him from all mention of Claire, "you must forgive me for having laughed at your play."

"Forgive you! I will forgive you if you weep during the next act; only on that condition."

How shall I describe the last act? Those who read "Francesca" in its published form can form no adequate idea of the enthusiasm in the Coliseum that night. To them it is a skeleton; then it was clothed with passionate flesh and blood, breathed, sobbed and wept in purest pathos; to me, even now, as I read it again, it is charged with the inspiration of that wonderful art, so true, so tender, that made its last act a miracle. I saw old men sob, and young men bow their heads to hide the emotion which they could not check. I saw that audience which had come to criticise, tremble and break into tumultuous weeping. Beside me, a greyheaded man was crying as any child. Yet why do I go on? No one who saw Clarissa Lambert can ever forget—no one who saw her not can ever imagine.

Tom had bowed his acknowledgments, the last flower had been flung, the last cheer had died away as we stepped out into the Strand together. The street was wrapped in the densest of November fogs. So thick was it that the lamps, the shop windows, came into sight, stared at us in ghostly weakness for a moment, and then were gone, leaving us in Egyptian gloom. I could not hope to see Claire to-night, and Tom was too modest to offer his congratulations until the morning. Both he and I were too shaken by the scene just past for many words, and outside the black fog caught and held us by the throat.

Even in the pitchy gloom I could feel that Tom's step was buoyant. He was treading already in imagination the path of love and fame. How should I have the heart to tell him? How wither the chaplet that already seemed to bind his brow?

Tom was the first to break the silence which had fallen upon us.

"Jasper, did you ever see or hear the like? Can a man help worshipping her? But for her, 'Francesca' would have been hissed. I know it, I could see it, and now, I suppose, I shall be famous.

"Famous!" continued he, soliloquising. "Three months ago I would have given the last drop of my blood for fame; and now, without Clarissa, fame will be a mockery. Do you think I might have any chance, the least chance?"

How could I answer him? The fog caught my breath as I tried to stammer a reply, and Tom, misinterpreting my want of words, read his condemnation.

"You do not? Of course, you do not; and you are right. Success has intoxicated me, I suppose. I am not used to the drink!" and he laughed a joyless laugh.

Then, with a change of mood, he caught my hat from off my head, and set his own in its place.

"We will change characters for the nonce," he said, "after the fashion of Falstaff and Prince Hal, and I will read myself a chastening discourse on the vanity of human wishes. 'Do thou stand for me, and I'll play my father.' Eh, Jasper?"

"'Well, here I am set,'" quoted I, content to humour him.

"Well, then, I know thee; thou art Thomas Loveday, a beggarly Grub Street author, i' faith, a man of literature, and wouldst set eyes upon one to whom princes fling bouquets; a low Endymion puffing a scrannel pipe, and wouldst call therewith a queen to be thy bride. Out upon thee for such monstrous folly!"

In his voice, as it came to me through the dense gloom, there rang, for all its summoned gaiety, a desperate mockery hideous to hear.

"Behold, success hath turned thy weak brain. But an hour agone enfranchised from Grub Street, thou must sing 'I'd be a butterfly.' Thou art vanity absolute, conceit beyond measure, and presumption out of all whooping. Yea, and but as a fool Pygmalion, not content with loving thine own handiwork, thou must needs fall in love with the goddess that breathed life into its stiff limbs; must yearn, not for Galatea, but for Aphrodite; not for Francesca, but for—Ah!"

What was that? I saw a figure start up as if from below our feet, and Tom's hand go up to his breast. There was a scuffle, a curse, and as I dashed forward, a dull, dim gleam—and Tom, with a groan, sank back into my arms.

That was all. A moment, and all had happened. Yet not all; for as I caught the body of my friend, and saw his face turn ashy white in the gloom, I saw also, saw unmistakably framed for an instant in the blackness of the fog, a face I knew; a face I should know until death robbed my eyes of sight and my brain of remembrance—the face of Simon Colliver.

A moment, and before I could pursue, before I could even shout or utter its name, it had faded into the darkness, and was gone.



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