Dead Man's Rock by Arthur Quiller-Couch

BOOK II
THE FINDING OF THE GREAT RUBY

CHAPTER IX
TELLS HOW TWO VOICES LED ME TO BOARD A SCHOONER;
AND WHAT BEFELL THERE


She died without speech. Only, as I knelt beside her and strove to staunch that cruel stream of blood, her beautiful eyes sought mine in utter love and, as the last agony shook her frame, strove to rend the filmy veil of death and speak to me still. Then, with one long, contented sigh, my love was dead. It was scarcely a minute before all was over. I pressed one last kiss upon the yet warm lips, tenderly drew her white mantle across the pallid face, and staggered from the theatre.

I had not raved or protested as I had done that same afternoon. Fate had no power to make me feel now; the point of anguish was passed, and in its place succeeded a numb stupidity more terrible by far, though far more blessed.

My love was dead. Then I was dead for any sensibility to suffering that I possessed. Hatless and cloak-less I stepped out into the freezing night air, and regardless of the curious looks of the passing throng I turned and walked rapidly westward up the Strand. There was a large and eager crowd outside the Coliseum, for already the news was spreading; but something in my face made them give room, and I passed through them as a man in a trance.

The white orb of the moon was high in heaven; the frozen pavement sounded hollow under-foot; the long street stood out, for all its yellow gas-light, white and distinct against the clear air; but I marked nothing of this. I went westward because my home lay westward, and some instinct took my hurrying feet thither. I had no purpose, no sensation. For aught I knew, that night London might have been a city of the dead.

Suddenly I halted beneath a lamp-post and began dimly to think. My love was dead:—that was the one fact that filled my thoughts at first, and so I strove to image it upon my brain, but could not. But as I stood there feebly struggling with the thought another took its place. Why should I live? Of course not; better end it all at once—and possessed with this idea I started off once more.

By degrees, as I walked, a plan shaped itself before me. I would go home, get my grandfather's key, together with the tin box containing my father's Journal, and then make for the river. That would be an easy death, and I could sink for ever, before I perished, all trace of the black secret which had pursued my life. I and the mystery would end together—so best. Then, without pain, almost with ghastly merriment, I thought that this was the same river which had murmured so sweetly to my love. Well, no doubt its voice would be just as musical over my grave. The same river:—but nearer the sea now— nearer the infinite sea.

As I reflected, the idea took yet stronger possession of me. Yes, it was in all respects the best. The curse should end now. "Even as the Heart of the Ruby is Blood and its Eyes a Flaming Fire, so shall it be for them that would possess it: Fire shall be their portion and Blood their inheritance for ever." For ever? No: the river should wash the blood away and quench the fire. Then arose another text and hammered at the door of my remembrance. "Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it." "Many waters"—"many waters":—the words whispered appealingly, invitingly, in my ears. "Many waters." My feet beat a tune to the words.

I reached my lodgings, ran upstairs, took out the key and the tin box, and descended again into the hall. My landlord was slipping down the latch. He stared at seeing me.

"Do not latch the door just yet: I am going out again," I said simply.

"Going out! I thought, sir, it was you as just now come in."

"Yes, but I must go out again:—it is important."

He evidently thought me mad; and so indeed I was.

"What, sir, in that dress? You've got no hat—no—"

I had forgotten. "True," I said; "get me a hat and coat."

He stared and then ran upstairs for them. Returning he said, "I have got you these, sir; but I can't find them as you usually wears."

"Those will do," I answered. "I must have left the others at the theatre."

This reduced him to utter speechlessness. Mutely he helped me to don the cloak over my thin evening dress. I slipped the tin box and the key into the pockets. As I stepped out once more into the night, my landlord found his speech.

"When will you be back, sir?"

The question startled me for a moment; for a second or two I hesitated.

"I asked because you have no latch-key, as I suppose you left it in your other coat. So that—"

"It does not matter," I answered. "Do not sit up. I shall not be back before morning;" and with that I left him still standing at the door, and listening to my footsteps as they hurried down the street.

"Before morning!" Before morning I should be in another world, if there were another world. And then it struck me that Claire and I might meet. She had taken her own life and so should I. But no, no—Heaven would forgive her that; it could not condemn my saint to the pit where I should lie: it could not be so kindly cruel; and then I laughed a loud and bitter laugh.

Still in my dull stupor I found myself nearing the river. I have not mentioned it before, but I must explain now, that during the summer I had purchased a boat, in which my Claire and I were used to row idly between Streatley and Pangbourne, or whithersoever love guided our oars. This boat, with the approach of winter, I had caused to be brought down the river and had housed in a waterman's shed just above Westminster, until the return of spring should bring back once more the happy days of its employment.

In my heart I blessed the chance that had stored it ready to my hand.

Stumbling through dark and tortuous streets where the moon's frosty brilliance was almost completely hidden, I came at last to the waterman's door and knocked. He was in bed and for some time my summons was in vain. At last I heard a sound in the room above, the window was let down and a sulky voice said, "Who's there?"

"Is that you, Bagnell?" I answered. "Come down. It is I, Mr. Trenoweth, and I want you."

There was a low cursing, a long pause broken by a muttered dispute upstairs, and then the street door opened and Bagnell appeared with a lantern.

"Bagnell, I want my boat."

"To-night, sir? And at this hour?"

"Yes, to-night. I want it particularly."

"But it is put away behind a dozen others, and can't be got."

"Never mind. I will help if you want assistance, but I must have it."

Bagnell looked at me for a minute and I could see that he was cursing under his breath.

"Is it serious, sir? You're not—"

"I am not drunk, if that is what you mean, but perfectly serious, and I must have my boat."

"Won't another do as well?"

"No, it will not." I felt in my pockets and found two sovereigns and a few shillings. "Look here," I said, "I will give you two pounds if you get this boat out for me."

This conquered his reluctance. He stared for a moment as I mentioned the amount, and then hastily deciding that I was stark mad, but that it was none of his business, put on his hat and led the way down to his boat-yard.

Stumbling in the uncertain light over innumerable timbers, spars, and old oars, we reached the shed at length and together managed, after much delay, to get out the light boat and let her down to the water. I gave him the two sovereigns as well as the few shillings that remained in my pocket, and as I descended, reflected grimly that after all they were better in his possession; the man who should find my body would have so much the less spoil. We had scarcely spoken whilst we were getting the boat out, and what words we used were uttered in that whisper which night always enforces; but as I clambered down (for the tide was now far out) and Bagnell passed down the sculls, he asked—

"When will you be back, sir?"

The same question! I gave it the same answer. "Not before morning," I said, and with a few strokes was out upon the tide and pulling down the river. I saw him standing there above in the moonlight, still wondering, until he faded in the dim haze behind. My boat was a light Thames dingey, so that although I felt the tide running up against me, it nevertheless made fair progress. What decided me to pull against the tide rather than float quietly upwards I do not know to this day. So deadened and vague was all my thought, that it probably never occurred to me to correct the direction in which the first few strokes had taken me. I was conscious of nothing but a row of lights gliding past me on either hand, of here and there a tower or tall building, that stood up for an instant against the sky and then swam slowly out of sight, of the creaking of my sculls in the ungreased rowlocks, and, above all, the white shimmer of the moon following my boat as it swung downwards.

I remember now that, in a childish way, I tried to escape this persistent brilliance that still clung to my boat's side with every stroke I took; that somehow a dull triumph possessed me when for a moment I slipped beneath the shadow of a bridge, or crept behind a black and silent hull. All this I can recall now, and wonder at the trivial nature of the thought. Then I caught the scent of white rose, and fell to wondering how it came there. There had been the same scent in the drawing-room that afternoon, I remembered, when Claire had said good-bye for ever. How had it followed me? After this I set myself aimlessly to count the lights that passed, lost count, and began again. And all the time the white glimmer hung at my side.

I was still wrapped up in my cloak, though the cape was flung back to give my arms free play. Rowing so, I must quickly have been warm; but I felt it no more than I had felt the cold as I walked home from the theatre. My boat was creeping along the Middlesex shore, by the old Temple stairs, and presently threaded its way through more crowded channels, and passed under the blackness of London Bridge.

How far below this I went, I cannot clearly call to mind; of distance, as well as of time, I had lost all calculation. I recollect making a circuit to avoid the press of boats waiting for the early dawn by Billingsgate Market, and have a vision of the White Tower against the heavens. But my next impression of any clearness is that of rowing under the shadow of a black three-masted schooner that lay close under shore, tilted over on her port side in the low water. As my dingey floated out again from beneath the overhanging hull, I looked up and saw the words, Water-Witch, painted in white upon her pitch-dark bows.

By this time I was among the tiers of shipping. I looked back over my shoulder, and saw their countless masts looming up as far as eye could see in the dim light, and their lamps flickering and wavering upon the water. I rowed about a score of strokes, and then stopped. Why go further? This place would serve as well as any other. No one was likely to hear my splash as I went overboard, and even if heard it would not be interpreted. I was still near enough to the Middlesex bank to be out of the broad moonlight that lit up the middle of the river. I took the tin box out of my cloak and stowed it for a moment in the stern. I would sink it with the key before I flung myself in. So, pulling the key out of the other pocket, I took off the cloak, then my dress-coat and waistcoat, folded them carefully, and placed them on the stern seat. This done, I slipped the key into one pocket of my trousers, my watch and chain into the other. I would do all quietly and in order, I reflected. I was silently kicking off my shoes, when a thought struck me. In my last struggles it was possible that the desire of life would master me, and almost unconsciously I might take to swimming. In the old days at Lizard Town swimming had been as natural to me as walking, and I had no doubt that as soon as in the water I should begin to strike out. Could I count upon determination enough to withhold my arms and let myself slowly drown?

Here was a difficulty; but I resolved to make everything sure. I took my handkerchief out of the coat pocket, and bent down to tie my feet firmly together. All this I did quite calmly and mechanically. As far as one can be certain of anything at this distance of time, I am certain of this, that no thought of hesitation came into my head. It was not that I overcame any doubts; they never occurred to me.

I was stooping down, and had already bound the handkerchief once around my ankles, when my boat grated softly against something. I looked up, and saw once more above me a dark ship's hull, and right above my head the white letters, Water-Witch.

This would never do. My boat had drifted up the river again with the tide, stern foremost, but a little aslant, and had run against the warp by the schooner's bows. I must pull out again, for otherwise the people on board would hear me. I pushed gently off from the warp and took the sculls, when suddenly I heard voices back towards the stern.

My first impulse was to get away with all speed, and I had already taken half a stroke, when something caused my hands to drop and my heart to give one wild leap.

What was it? Something in the voices? Yes; something that brushed my stupor from me as though it were a cobweb; something that made me hush my breath, and strain with all my ears to listen.

The two voices were those of man and woman, They were slightly raised, as if in a quarrel; the woman's pleading and entreating, the man's threatening and stern. But that was not the reason that suddenly set my heart uncontrollably beating and all the blood rushing and surging to my temples.

For in those two voices I recognised Mrs. Luttrell and Simon Colliver!

"Have you not done enough?" the woman's voice was saying. "Has your cruelty no end, that you must pursue me so? Take this money, and let me go."

"I must have more," was the answer.

"Indeed, I have no more just now. Go, only go, and I will send you some. I swear it."

"I cannot go," said the man.

"Why?"

"Never mind. I am watched." Here the voice muttered some words which I could not catch. "So that unless you wish to see your husband swing—and believe me, my confession and last dying speech would not omit to mention the kind aid I had received from you and Clar-"

"Hush! oh, hush! If I get you this money, will you leave us in peace for a time? Knowing your nature, I will not ask for pity—only for a short respite. I must tell Claire, poor girl; she does not know yet—"

Quite softly my boat had drifted once more across the schooner's bows. I pulled it round until its nose touched the anchor chain, and made the painter fast. Then slipping my hand up the chain, I stood with my shoeless feet upon the gunwale by the bows. Still grasping the chain, I sprang and swung myself out to the jib-boom that, with the cant of the vessel, was not far above the water: then pressed my left foot in between the stay and the brace, while I hung for a moment to listen.

They had not heard, for I could still catch the murmur of their voices. The creak of the jib-boom and the swish of my own boat beneath had frightened me at first. It seemed impossible that it should not disturb them. But after a moment my courage returned, and I pulled myself up on to the bowsprit, and lying almost at full length along it, for fear of being spied, crawled slowly along, and dropped noiselessly on to the deck.

They were standing together by the mizzen-mast, he with his back turned full towards me, she less entirely averted, so that I could see a part of her face in the moonlight, and the silvery gleam of her grey hair. Yes, it was they, surely enough; and they had not seen me. My revenge, long waited for, was in my grasp at last.

Suddenly, as I stood there watching them, I remembered my knife—the blade which had slain my father. I had left it below—fool that I was!—in the tin box. Could I creep back again, and return without attracting their attention? Should I hazard the attempt for the sake of planting that piece of steel in Simon Colliver's black heart?

It was a foolish thought, but my whole soul was set upon murder now, and the chance of slaying him with the very knife left in my father's wound seemed too dear to be lightly given up. Most likely he was armed now, whilst I had no weapon but the naked hand. Yet I did not think of this. It never even occurred to me that he would defend himself. Still, the thought of that knife was sweet to me as I crouched there beneath the shadow of the bulwarks. Should I go, or not? I paused for a moment, undecided; then rose slowly erect.

As I did so Mrs. Luttrell turned for an instant and saw me.

As I stood there, bareheaded, with the moonlight shining full upon my white shirt-sleeves, I must have seemed a very ghost; for a look of abject terror swept across her face; her voice broke off and both her hands were flung up for mercy—

"Oh, God! Look! look!"

As I rushed forward he turned, and then, with the spring of a wild cat, was upon me. Even as he leapt, my foot slipped upon the greasy deck; I staggered backward one step—two steps—and then fell with a crash down the unguarded forecastle ladder.



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