Dead Man's Rock by Arthur Quiller-Couch

BOOK II
THE FINDING OF THE GREAT RUBY

CHAPTER VIII
TELLS HOW THE CURTAIN FELL UPON "FRANCESCA: A TRAGEDY"


For a moment I staggered back as though buffeted in the face, then, as our eyes met and read in each other the desperate truth, I sprang forward just in time to catch her as she fell. Blindly, as if in some hideous trance, reeling and stumbling over the graves, I carried her in my arms to the cemetery gate and stood there panting and bewildered.

Cold and white as marble she lay in my arms, so that for one terrible moment I thought her dead. "Better so," my heart had cried, and then I laughed aloud (God forgive me!) at the utter cruelty of it all. But she was not dead. As I watched the lovely ashen face, the slow blood came trickling back and throbbed faintly at her temples, the light breath flickered and went and came once more. Feebly and with wonder the dark eyes opened to the light of day, then closed again as the lips parted in a moaning whisper.

"Claire!" I cried, and my voice seemed to come from far away, so hollow and unnatural was it, "I must take you to your home; are you well enough to go?"

I had laid her on the stone upon which the bearers were used to set down the coffins when weary. Scarcely a week ago, poor Tom's corpse had rested for a moment upon this grim stone. As I bent to catch the answer, and saw how like to death her face was, I thought how well it were for both of us, should we be resting there so together; not leaving the acre of the dead, but entering it as rightful heirs of its oblivion.

After a while, as I repeated my question, the lips again parted and I heard.

I looked down the road. The cemetery lay far out in one of the northern suburbs, and just now the neighbourhood seemed utterly deserted. By good chance, however, I spied an old four-wheeler crawling along in the distance. I ran after it, hailed it, brought it back, and with the help of the wondering driver, placed my love inside; then I gave the man the address, and bidding him drive with all speed, sprang in beside Claire.

Still faint, she was lying back against the cushion. The cab crawled along at a snail's pace, but long as the journey was, it was passed in utter silence. She never opened her eyes, and as for me, what comfortable words could I speak? Yet as I saw the soft rise and fall of her breast, I longed for words, Heaven knows how madly! But none came, and in silence we drew up at length before a modest doorway in Old Kensington.

Here Claire summoned all her strength lest her mother should be frightened. Still keeping her eyes averted, she stepped as bravely as she could from the cab, and laid her hand upon the door-handle.

I made as if to follow.

"No, no," she said hastily, "leave me to myself—I will write to-morrow and perhaps see you; but, oh, pray, not to-day!"

Before I could answer she had passed into the house.

Twenty-four hours had passed and left me as they found me, in torture. Despite my doubt, I swore she should not cast me off; then knelt and prayed as I had never prayed before, that Heaven would deny some of its cruelty to my darling. In the abandonment of my supplication, I was ready to fling the secret from me and forgive all, to forgive my father's murderer, my life-long enemy, and let him go unsought, rather than give up Claire. Yet as I prayed, my entreaties and my tears went up to no compassionate God, but beat themselves upon the adamantine face of Dead Man's Rock that still rose inexorable between me and Heaven.

That night the crowd that gathered in the Coliseum to see the new play, went away angry and disappointed; for Clarissa Lambert was not acting. Another actress took her part—but how differently! And all the while she, for whose sake they had come, was on her knees wrestling with a grimmer tragedy than "Francesca," with no other audience than the angels of pity.

Twenty-four hours had passed, and found me hastening towards Old Kensington; for in my pocket lay a note bearing only the words "Come at 3.30—Claire," and on my heart rested a load of suspense unbearable. For many minutes beforehand, I paced up and down outside the house in an agony, and as my watch pointed to the half-hour, knocked and was admitted.

Mrs. Luttrell met me in the passage. She seemed most terribly white and worn, so that I was astonished when she simply said, "Claire is slightly unwell, and in fact could not act last night, but she wishes to see you for some reason."

Wondering why Claire's mother should look so strangely if she guessed nothing of what had happened, but supposing illness to be the reason, I stopped for an instant to ask.

"Am I pale?" she answered. "It is nothing—nothing—do not take any notice of it. I am rather weaker than usual to-day, that is all—a mere nothing. You will find Claire in the drawing-room there." And so she left me.

I knocked at the drawing-room door, and hearing a faint voice inside, entered. As I did so, Claire rose to meet me. She was very pale, and the dark circles around her eyes told of a long vigil; but her manner at first was composed and even cold.

"Claire!" I cried, and stretched out my hands.

"Not yet," she said, and motioned me to a chair. "I sent for you because I have been thinking of—of—what happened yesterday, and I want you to tell me all; the whole story from beginning to end."

"But—"

"There is no 'but' in the case, Jasper. I am Janet Railton, and you say that my father killed yours. Tell me how it was."

Her manner was so calm that I hesitated at first, bewildered. Then, finding that she waited for me to speak, I sat down facing her and began my story.

I told it through, without suppression or concealment, from the time when my father started to seek the treasure, down to the cowardly blow that had taken my friend's life. During the whole narrative she never took her eyes from my face for more than a moment. Her very lips were bloodless, but her manner was as quiet as though I were reading her some story of people who had never lived. Once only she interrupted me. I was repeating the conversation between her father and Simon Colliver upon Dead Man's Rock.

"You are quite sure," she asked, "of the words? You are positive he said, 'Captain, it was your knife'?"

"Certain," I answered sadly.

"You are giving the very words they both used?"

"As well as I can remember; and I have cause for a good memory."

"Go on," she replied simply.

So I unrolled the whole chronicle of our unhappy fates, and even read to her Lucy Railton's letter which I had brought with me. Then, as I ceased, for full a minute we sat in absolute silence, reading each other's gaze.

"Let me see the letter," she said, and held out her hand for it.

I gave it to her. She read it slowly through and handed it back.

"Yes, it is my mother's letter," she said, slowly.

Then again silence fell upon us. I could hear the clock tick slowly on the mantelpiece, and the beating of my own heart that raced and outstripped it. That was all; until at length the slow, measured footfall of the timepiece grew maddening to hear; it seemed a symbol of the unrelenting doom pursuing us, and I longed to rise and break it to atoms.

I could stand it no longer.

"Claire, tell me that this will not—cannot alter you—that you are mine yet, as you were before."

"This is impossible," she said, very gravely and quietly.

"Impossible? Oh, no, no, do not say that! You cannot, you must not say that!"

"Yes, Jasper," she repeated, and her face was pallid as snow; "it is impossible."

But as I heard my doom, I arose and fought it with blind despair.

"Claire, you do not know what you are saying. You love me, Claire; you have told me so, and I love you as my very soul. Surely, then, you will not say this thing. How were we to know? How could you have told? Oh, Claire! is it that you do not love me?"

Her eyes were full of infinite compassion and tenderness, but her lips were firm and cold.

"You know that I love you."

"Then, oh, my love! how can this come between us? What does it matter that our fathers fought and killed each other, if only we love? Surely, surely Heaven cannot fix the seal of this crime upon us for ever? Speak, Claire, and tell me that you will be mine in spite of all!"

"It cannot be," she answered, very gently.

"Cannot be!" I echoed. "Then I was right, and you do not love, but fancied that you did for a while. Love, love, was that fair? No power on earth—no, nor in heaven—should have made me cast you off so."

My rage died out before the mute reproach of those lovely eyes. I caught the white hand.

"Forgive me, Claire; I was desperate, and knew not what I was saying. I know you love me—you have said so, and you are truth itself; truth and all goodness. But if you have loved, then you can love me still. Remember our text, Claire, 'Love is strong as death.' Strong as death, and can it be overcome so easily?"

She was trembling terribly, and from the little hand within mine I could feel her agitation. But though the soft eyes spoke appealingly as they were raised in answer, I could see, behind all their anguish, an immutable resolve. "No, Jasper; it can never be—never. Do you think I am not suffering—that it is nothing to me to lose you? Try to think better of me. Oh, Jasper, it is hard indeed for me, and—I love you so."

"No, no," she went on; "do not make the task harder for me. Why can you not curse me? It would be easier then. Why can you not hate me as you ought? Oh, if you would but strike me and go, I could better bear this hour!"

There was such abandonment of entreaty in her tones that my heart bled for her; yet I could only answer—

"Claire, I will not give you up; not though you went on your knees and implored it. Death alone can divide us now; and even death will never kill my love."

"Death!" she answered. "Think, then, that I am dead; think of me as under the mould. Ah, love, hearts do not break so easily. You would grieve at first, but in a little while I should be forgotten."

"Claire!"

"Forgive me, love; not forgotten. I wronged you when I said the word. Believe me, Jasper, that if there be any gleam of day in the blackness that surrounds me it is the thought that you so love me; and yet it would have been far easier otherwise—far easier."

Little by little my hope was slipping from me; but still I strove with her as a man battles for his life. I raved, protested, called earth and heaven to witness her cruelty; but all in vain.

"It would be a sin—a horrible sin!" she kept saying. "God would never forgive it. No, no; do not try to persuade me—it is horrible!" and she shuddered.

Utterly beaten at last by her obstinacy, I said—

"I will leave you now to think it over. Let me call again and hear that you repent."

"No, love; we must never meet again. This must be our last good-bye. Stay!" and she smiled for the first time since that meeting in the cemetery. "Come to 'Francesca' to-night; I am going to act."

"What! to-night?"

"Yes. One must live, you see, even though one suffers. See, I have a ticket for you—for a box. You will come? Promise me."

"Never, Claire."

"Yes, promise me. Do me this last favour; I shall never ask another."

I took the card in silence.

"And now," she said, "you may kiss me. Kiss me on the lips for the last time, and may God bless you, my love."

Quite calmly and gently she lifted her lips to mine, and on her face was the glory of unutterable tenderness.

"Claire! My love, my love!" My arms were round her, her whole form yielded helplessly to mine, and as our lips met in that one passionate, shuddering caress, sank on my breast.

"You will not leave me?" I cried.

And through her sobs came the answer—

"Yes, yes; it must be, it must be."

Then drawing herself up, she held out her hand and said—

"To-night, remember, and so—farewell."

And so, in the fading light of that grey December afternoon I left her standing there.

Mad and distraught with the passion of that parting, I sat that evening in the shadow of my box and waited for the curtain to rise upon "Francesca." The Coliseum was crowded to the roof, for it was known that Clarissa Lambert's illness had been merely a slight indisposition, and to-night she would again be acting. I was too busy with my own hard thoughts to pay much attention at first, but I noticed that my box was the one nearest to the stage, in the tier next above it. So that once more I should hear my darling's voice, and see her form close to me. Once or twice I vaguely scanned the audience. The boxes opposite were full; but, of course, I could see nothing of my own side of the theatre. After a moment's listless glance, I leaned back in the shadow and waited.

I do not know who composed the overture. It is haunted by one exquisite air, repeated, fading into variations, then rising once more only to sink into the tender sorrow of a minor key. I have heard it but twice in my life, but the music of it is with me to this day. Then, as I heard it, it carried me back to the hour when Tom and I sat expectant in this same theatre, he trembling for his play's success, I for the sight of my love. Poor Tom! The sad melody wailed upwards as though it were the voice of the wind playing about his grave, every note breathing pathos or suspiring in tremulous anguish. Poor Tom! Yet your love was happier than mine; better to die with Claire's kiss warm upon the lips than to live with but the memory of it.

The throbbing music had ended, and the play began. As before, the audience were without enthusiasm at first, but to-night they knew they had but to wait, and they did so patiently; so that when at last Claire's voice died softly away at the close of her opening song, the hushed house was suddenly shaken to its roof with the storm and tumult of applause.

There she stood, serene and glowing, as one that had never known pain. My very eyes doubted. On her face was no sign of suffering, no trace of a tear. Was she, then, utterly without heart? In my memory I retraced the scene of that afternoon, and all my reason acquitted her. Yet, as she stood there in her glorious epiphany, illumined with the blazing lights, and radiant in the joy and freshness of youth, I could have doubted whether, after all, Clarissa Lambert and Claire Luttrell were one and the same.

There was one thing which I did not fail, however, to note as strange. She did not once glance in the direction of my box, but kept her eyes steadily averted. And it then suddenly dawned upon me that she must be playing with a purpose; but what that purpose was I could not guess.

Whatever it was, she was acting magnificently and had for the present completely surrendered herself to her art. Grand as that art had been on the first night of "Francesca," the power of that performance was utterly eclipsed to-night. Once between the acts I heard two voices in the passage outside my box—

"What do you think of it?" said the first.

"What can I?" answered the other. "And how can I tell you? It is altogether above words."

He was right. It was not so much admiration as awe and worship that held the house that night. I have heard a man say since that he wonders how the play could ever have raised anything beyond a laugh. He should have heard the sobs that every now and then would break uncontrollably forth, even whilst Claire was speaking. He should have felt the hush that followed every scene before the audience could recollect itself and pay its thunderous tribute.

Still she never looked towards me, though all the while my eyes were following my lost love. Her purpose—and somehow in my heart I grew more and more convinced that some purpose lay beneath this transcendent display—was waiting for its accomplishment, and in the ringing triumph of her voice I felt it coming nearer—nearer—until at last it came.

The tragedy was nearly over. Francesca had dismissed her old lover and his new bride from their captivity and was now left alone upon the stage. The last expectant hush had fallen upon the house. Then she stepped slowly forward in the dead silence, and as she spoke the opening lines, for the first time our eyes met.

"Here then all ends:—all love, all hate, all vows,
All vain reproaches. Aye, 'tis better so.
So shall he best forgive and I forget,
Who else had chained him to a life-long curse,
Who else had sought forgiveness, given in vain
While life remained that made forgiveness dear.
Far better to release him—loving more
Now love denies its love and he is free,
Than should it by enjoyment wreck his joy.
Blighting his life for whom alone I lived.

"No, no. As God is just, it could not be.
Yet, oh, my love, be happy in the days
I may not share, with her whose present lips
Usurp the rights of my lost sovranty.
I would not have thee think—save now and then
As in a dream that is not all a dream—
On her whose love was sunshine for an hour,
Then died or e'er its beams could blast thy life.
Be happy and forget what might have been,
Forget my dear embraces in her arms,
My lips in hers, my children in her sons,
While I—
         Dear love, it is not hard to die
Now once the path is plain. See, I accept
And step as gladly to the sacrifice
As any maid upon her bridal morn—
One little stroke—one tiny touch of pain
And I am quit of pain for evermore.
It needs no bravery. Wert thou here to see,
I would not have thee weep, but look—one stroke,
And thus—"

What was that shriek far back there in the house? What was that at sight of which the audience rose white and aghast from their seats? What was it that made Sebastian as he entered rush suddenly forward and fall with awful cry before Francesca's body? What was that trickling down the folds of her white dress? Blood?

Yes, blood! In an instant I put my hand upon the cushion of the box, vaulted down to the stage and was kneeling beside my dying love. But as the clamorous bell rang down the curtain, I heard above its noise a light and silvery laugh, and looking up saw in the box next to mine the coal-black devilish eyes of the yellow woman.

Then the curtain fell.



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