Dead Man's Rock by Arthur Quiller-Couch

BOOK II
THE FINDING OF THE GREAT RUBY

CHAPTER VII
TELLS HOW CLAIRE WENT TO THE PLAY;
AND HOW SHE SAW THE GOLDEN CLASP


Tom was dying. His depositions had been taken and signed with his failing hand; the surgeon had given his judgment, and my friend was lying upon his bed, face to face with the supreme struggle.

The knife had missed his heart by little more than an inch, but the inward bleeding was killing him and there was no hope. He knew it, and though the reason of that cowardly blow was a mystery to him, he asked few questions, but faced his fate with the old boyish pluck. His eyes as they turned to mine were lit with the old boyish love.

Once only since his evidence was taken had his lips moved, and then to murmur her name. I had sent for her: a short note with only the words "Tom is dying and wants to speak with you." So, while we waited, I sat holding my friend's hand and busy with my own black thoughts.

I knew that he had received the blow meant for me, and that the secret of this too, as well as that other assault in the gambling-den, hung on the Golden Clasp and the Great Ruby. Whatever that secret was, the yellow woman knew of it, and held it beneath the glitter of her awful eyes. She it was that had directed the murderous knife in the hands of Simon Colliver. Bitterly I cursed the folly which had prompted my rash words in the theatre, and so sacrificed my friend. With what passion, even in my despair, I thanked Heaven that the act which led to Colliver's mistake had been Tom's and not mine! Yet, what consolation was it? It was I, not he, that should be lying there. He had given his life for his friend—a friend who had already robbed him of his love. O false and traitorous friend!

In my humiliation I would have taken my hand from his, but a feeble pressure and a look of faint reproach restrained me. So he lay there and I sat beside him, and both counted the moments until Claire should come—or death.

A knock at the door outside. Tom heard it and in his eyes shone a light of ineffable joy. In answer to his look I dropped his hand and went to meet her.

"Claire, how can I thank you for this speed?"

"How did it happen?"

"Murdered!" said I. "Foully struck down last night as he left the theatre."

Her eyes looked for a moment as though they would have questioned me further, but she simply asked—

"Does he want to see me?"

"When he heard he was to die he asked for you. Claire, if you only knew how he longs to see you; had you only seen his eyes when he heard you come! You know why—"

She nodded gravely.

"I suppose," she said slowly, "we had better say nothing of—"

"Nothing," I answered; "it is better so. If there be any knowledge beyond the grave he will know all soon."

Claire was silent.

"Yes," she assented at length, "it is better so. Take me to him."

I drew back as Claire approached the bed, dreading to meet Tom's eyes; but I saw them welcome her in a flash of thankful rapture, then slowly close as though unable wholly to bear this glad vision.

Altogether lovely she was as she bent and lifted his nerveless hand, with the light of purest compassion on her face.

"You have come then," said the dying man. "God bless you for that!"

"I am come, and oh! I am so very, very sorry."

"I saw Jasper write and knew he had sent, but I hardly dared to hope. I am—very weak—and am going—fast."

For answer, a tear of infinite pity dropped on the white hand.

"Don't weep—I can't bear to see you weeping. It is all for the best. I can see that I have had hopes and visions, but I should never have attained them—never. Now I shall not have to strive. Better so—better so."

For a moment or two the lips moved inaudibly; then they spoke again—

"It was so good of you—to come; I was afraid—afraid—but you are good. You saved my play last night, but you cannot save—me." A wan smile played over the white face and was gone.

"Better so, for I can speak now and be pardoned. Do you know why I sent for you? I wanted to tell something—before I died. Do not be angry—I shall be dead soon, and in the grave, they say, there is no knowledge. Clarissa! oh, pity me—pity me, if I speak!"

The eyes looked up imploringly and met their pardon.

"I have loved you—yes, loved you. Can you forgive? It need not distress—you—now. It was mad—mad—but I loved you. Jasper, come here."

I stepped to the bed.

"Tell her I loved her, and ask her—to forgive me. Tell her I knew it was hopeless. Tell her so, Jasper."

Powerless to meet those trustful eyes, weary with the anguish of my remorse, I stood there helpless.

"Jasper is too much—upset just now to speak. Never mind, he will tell you later. He is in love himself. I have never seen her, but I hope he may be happier than I. Forgive me for saying that. I am happy now—happy now.

"You do not know Jasper," continued the dying man after a pause; "but he saw you last night—and admired—how could he help it? I hope you will be friends—for my sake. Jasper is my only friend."

There was a grey shadow on his face now—the shadow of death. Tom must have felt it draw near, for suddenly raising himself upon his elbow, he cried—

"Ah, I was selfish—I did not think. They are waiting at the theatre—go to them. You will act your best—for my sake. Forget what I have said, if you cannot forgive."

"Oh, why will you think that?"

"You do forgive? Oh, God bless you, God bless you for it! Clarissa, if that be so, grant one thing more of your infinite mercy. Kiss me once—once only—on the lips. I shall die happier so. Will you—can you—do this?"

The film was gathering fast upon those eyes once so full of laughter; but through it they gazed in passionate appeal. For answer, my love bent gravely over the bed and with her lips met his; then, still clasping his hand, sank on her knees beside the bed.

"Thank God! My love—oh, let me call you that—you cannot—help—my loving you. Do not pray—I am happy now and—they are waiting for you."

Slowly Claire arose to her feet and stood waiting for his last word—

"They are waiting—waiting. Good-bye, Jasper—old friend—and Clarissa—Clarissa—my love—they are waiting—I cannot come—Clar—"

Slowly Claire bent and once more touched his lips, then without a word passed slowly out. As she went Death entered and found on its victim's face a changeless, rapturous smile.

So "Francesca" was played a second time and, as the papers said next morning, with even more perfect art and amid more awed enthusiasm than on the first night. But as the piece went on, a rumour passed through the house that its young author was dead—suddenly and mysteriously dead while the dawn of his fame was yet breaking—struck down, some said, outside the theatre by a rival, while others whispered that he had taken poison, but none knew for certain. Only, as Claire passed from one heart-shaking scene to another, the rumour grew and grew, so that when the curtain fell the audience parted in awed and murmured speculations.

And all the while I was kneeling beside the body of my murdered friend.

A week had passed and I was standing with Claire beside Tom's grave. We had met and spoken at the funeral, but some restraint had lain upon our tongues. For myself, I was still as one who had sold his brother for a price, and Claire had forborne from questioning my grief.

The coroner's jury had brought in a verdict of "Murder by a certain person unknown," and now the police were occupied in following such clues as I could give them. All the daily papers assigned robbery as the motive, and the disappearance of Tom's watch-chain gave plausibility to the theory. But I knew too well why that chain had disappeared, and even in my grief found consolation in the thought of Colliver's impotent rage when he should come to examine his prize. I had described the face and figure of my enemy and had even identified him with the long-missing sailor Georgio Rhodojani, so that they promised to lay hands on him in a very short space. But the public knew nothing of this. The only effect of the newspapers' version of the murder was to send the town crowding in greater numbers than ever to see the dead man's play.

Since the first night of "Francesca," Claire and I had only met by Tom's bedside and at his funeral. But as I entered the gloomy cemetery that afternoon I spied a figure draped in black beside the yet unsettled mound, and as I drew near knew it to be Claire.

So we stood there facing one another for a full minute, at a loss for words. A wreath of immortelles lay upon the grave. In my heart I thanked her for the gift, but could not speak. It seemed as though the hillock that parted us were some impassable barrier to words. Had I but guessed the truth I should have known that, unseen and unsuspected, across that foot or two of turf was stretched a gulf we were never more to cross: between our lives lay the body of my friend; and not his only, but many a pallid corpse that with its mute lips cursed our loves.

Presently Claire raised her head and spoke.

"Jasper, you have much to forgive me, and I hardly dare ask your forgiveness. It is too late to ask forgiveness of a dead man, but could he hear now I would entreat him to pardon the folly that wrought this cruel mistake."

"Claire, you could not know. How was it possible to guess?"

"That is true, but it is no less cruel. And I deceived you. Can you ever forgive?"

"Forgive! forgive what? That I found my love peerless among women? Oh, Claire, Claire, 'forgive'?"

"Yes; what matters it that for the moment I have what is called fame? I deceived you—yet, believe me, it was only because I thought to make the surprise more pleasant. I thought—but it is too late. Only believe I had no other thought, no other wish. My poor scheme seemed so harmless at first: then as the days went on I began to doubt. But until you told me, as we stood beside the river, of— him, I never guessed;—oh, believe me, I never guessed!"

"Love, do not accuse yourself in this way. It hurts me to hear you speak so. If there was any fault it was mine; but the Fates blinded us. If you had known Tom, you would know that he would forgive could he hear us now. For me, Claire, what have I to pardon?"

Claire did not answer for a moment. There was still a trouble in her face, as though something yet remained to be said and she had not the courage to utter it.

"Jasper, there is something besides, which you have to pardon if you can."

"My love!"

"Do you remember what I asked you that night, when you first told me about him?"

"You asked me a foolish question, if I remember rightly. You asked if I could ever cease to love you."

"No, not foolish; I really meant it seriously, and I believed you when you answered me. Are you of the same mind now? Believe me, I am not asking lightly."

"I answer you as I answered you then: 'Love is strong as death.' My love, put away these thoughts and be sure that I love you as my own soul."

"But perhaps, even so, you might be so angry that—Oh, Jasper, how can I tell you?"

"Tell me all, Claire."

"I told you I was called, or that they called me Claire. Were you not surprised when you saw my name as Clarissa Lambert?"

"Is that all?" I cried. "Why, of course, I knew how common it is for actresses to take another name. I was even glad of it; for the name I know, your own name, is now a secret, and all the sweeter so. All the world admires Clarissa Lambert, but I alone love Claire Luttrell, and know that Claire Luttrell loves me."

"But that is not all," she expostulated, whilst the trouble in her eyes grew deeper. "Oh, why will you make it so hard for me to explain? I never thought, when I told you so carelessly on that night when we met for the first time, that you would grow to care for me at all. And it was the same afterwards, when I introduced you to my mother; I gave you the name Luttrell, without ever dreaming—"

"Was Luttrell not your mother's name?" I asked, perplexed.

"That is the name by which she is always called now; and I am always called Claire; in fact, it is my name, but I have another, and I ought to have told you."

"Why, as Claire I know you, and as Claire I shall always love you. What does it matter if your real name be Lambert? You will change it, love, soon, I trust."

But my poor little jest woke no mirth in her eyes.

"No, it is not Lambert. That is only the name I took when I went on the stage. Nor am I called Luttrell. It is a sad story; but let me tell it now, and put an end to all deception. I meant to do so long ago; but lately I thought I would wait until after you had seen me on the stage; I thought I would explain all together, not knowing that he—but it has all gone wrong. Jasper, I know you will pity poor mother, even though she had allowed you to be deceived. She has been so unhappy. But let me tell it first, and then you will judge. She calls herself Luttrell to avoid persecution; to avoid a man who is—"

"A villain, I am sure."

"A villain, yes; but worse. He is her husband; not my father, but a second husband. My father died when I was quite a little child, and she married again. Ever since that day she has been miserable. I remember her face—oh, so well! when she first discovered the real character of the man. For years she suffered—we were abroad then— until at last she could bear it no longer, so she fled—fled back to England, and took me with her. I think, but I am not sure, that her husband did not dare to follow her to England, because he had done something against the laws. I only guess this, for I never dare to ask mother about him. I did so once, and shall never forget the look of terror that came into her eyes. I only guess he has some strong reason for avoiding England, for I remember we went abroad hastily, almost directly after that night when mother first discovered that she had been deceived. However that may be, we came to England, mother and I, and changed our name to Luttrell, which was her maiden name. After this, our life became one perpetual dread of discovery. We were miserably poor, of course, and I was unable to do anything to help for many years. Mother was so careful; why, she even called me by my second name, so desperately anxious was she to hide all traces from that man. Then suddenly we were discovered—not by him, but by his mother, whom he set to search for us, and she—for she was not wholly bad—promised to make my fortune on the single condition that half my earnings were sent to him. Otherwise, she threatened that mother should have no rest. What could I do? It was the only way to save ourselves. Well, I promised to go upon the stage, for this woman fancied she discovered some talent in me. Why, Jasper, how strangely you are looking!"

"Tell me—tell me," I cried, "who is this woman?"

"You ought to know that, for you were in the box with her during most of the first night of 'Francesca.'"

A horrible, paralysing dread had seized me.

"Her name, and his? Quick—tell me, for God's sake!"

"Colliver. He is called Simon Colliver. But, Jasper, what is it? What—"

I took the chain and Golden Clasp and handed them to Claire without speech.

"Why, what is this?" she cried. "He has a piece exactly like this, the fellow to it; I remember seeing it when I was quite small. Oh, speak! what new mystery, what new trouble is this?"

"Claire, Colliver is here in London, or was but a week ago."

"Here!"

"Yes, Claire; and it was he that murdered Thomas Loveday."

"Murdered Thomas Loveday! I do not understand." She had turned a deathly white, and spread out her hands as if for support. "Tell me—"

"Yes, Claire," I said, as I stepped to her, and put my arm about her; "it is truth, as I stand here. Colliver, your mother's husband, foully murdered my innocent friend for the sake of that piece of gold; and more, Simon Colliver, for the sake of this same accursed token, murdered my father!"

"Your father!"

She shook off my arm, and stood facing me there, by Tom's grave, with a look of utter horror that froze my blood.

"Yes, my father; or stay, I am wrong. Though Colliver prompted, his was not the hand that did the deed. That he left to a poor wretch whom he afterwards slew himself—one Railton—John Railton."

"What!"

"Why, Claire, Claire! What is it? Speak!"

"I am Janet Railton!"



Back | Next | Contents