Dead Man's Rock by Arthur Quiller-Couch



As my senses came gradually back I could distinguish a narrow, dingy cabin, dimly lit by one flickering oil-lamp which swung from a rafter above. Its faint ray just revealed the furniture of the room, which consisted of a seaman's chest standing in the middle, and two gaunt stools. On one of these I was seated, propped against the cabin wall, or rather partition, and as I attempted to move I learnt that I was bound hand and foot.

On the other stool opposite me and beside the chest, sat Simon Colliver, silently eyeing me. The lamplight as it flared and wavered cast grotesque and dancing shadows of the man upon the wall behind, made of his matted hair black eaves under which his eyes gleamed red as fire, and glinted lastly upon something bright lying on the chest before him.

For a minute or so after my eyes first opened no word was said. Still dizzy with my fall, I stared for a moment at the man, then at the chest, and saw that the bright objects gleaming there were my grandfather's key and my watch-chain, at the end of which hung the Golden Clasp. But now the clasp was fitted to its fellow and the whole buckle lay united upon the board.

Though the bonds around my arms, wrists, and ankles caused me intolerable pain, yet my first feeling was rather of abject humiliation. To be caught thus easily, to be lying here like any rat in a gin! this was the agonising thought. Nor was this all. There on the chest lay the Golden Clasp united at last—the work completed which was begun with that unholy massacre on board the Belle Fortune. I had played straight into Colliver's hand.

He was in no hurry, but sat and watched me there with those intolerably evil eyes. His left hand was thrust carelessly into his pocket, and as he tilted back upon the stool and surveyed me, his right was playing with the clasp upon the chest. As I painfully turned my head a drop of blood came trickling down into my eyes from a cut in my forehead; I saw, however, that the door was bolted. An empty bottle and a plate of broken victuals lay carelessly thrust in a corner, and a villainous smell from the lamp filled the whole room and almost choked me; but the only sound in the dead stillness of the place was the monotonous tick-tick of my watch as it lay upon the chest.

How long I had lain there I could not guess, but I noticed that the floor slanted much less than when I first scrambled on deck, so guessed that the tide must have risen considerably. Then having exhausted my wonder I looked again at Colliver, and began to speculate how he would kill me and how long he would take about it.

I found his wolfish eyes still regarding me, and for a minute or two we studied each other in silence. Then without removing his gaze he tilted his stool forward, slowly drew a short heavy knife from his waist-band, slipped it out of its sheath—still without taking his left hand from his pocket—laid it on the table and leant back again.

"I suppose," he said at last and very deliberately as if chewing his words, "you know that if you attempt to cry out or summon help, you are a dead man that instant."

"Well, well," he continued, after waiting a moment for my reply, "as long as you understand that, it does not matter. I confess I should have preferred to talk with you and not merely to you. However, before I kill you—and I suppose you guess that I am going to kill you as soon as I've done with you—I wish to have just a word, Master Jasper Trenoweth."

From the tone in which he said the words he might have been congratulating me on some great good fortune. He paused awhile as if to allow the full force of them to sink in, and then took up the Golden Clasp. Holding the pieces together with the fore-finger and thumb of his right hand, he advanced and thrust it right under my sight—

"Do you see that? Can you read it?"

As I was still mute he walked back to the chest and laid the clasp down again.

"Aha!" he exclaimed with a short laugh horrible to hear, "you won't speak. But there have been times, Mr. Jasper Trenoweth, when you would have given your soul to lay hands upon this piece of gold and read what is written upon it. It is a pity your hands are tied—a thousand pities. But I do not wish to be hard on you, and so I don't mind reading out what is written here. The secret will be safe with you, don't you see? Quite—safe—with—you."

He rolled out these last words, one by one, with infinite relish; and the mockery in the depths of those eyes seared me far more than my bonds. After watching the effect of his taunt he resumed his seat upon the stool, pulled the clasp towards him and said—

"People might call me rash for entrusting these confidences to you. But I do not mind admitting that I owe you some reparation—some anterior reparation. So, as I don't wish you to die cursing me, I will be generous. Listen!"

He held the buckle down upon the table and read out the inscription as follows:—


He read it through twice very slowly, and each time as he ceased looked up to see how I took it.

"It does not seem to make much sense, does it?" he asked. "But wait a moment and let me parcel it out into sentences. I should not like you to miss any of its meaning. Listen again." He divided the writing up thus:—

"Start at full moon.
 End South Point 27 feet N.N.W.
 22 feet W. of Ring. North Side.
 4 feet 6 inches deep at point of meeting.
 Low water 1.5 hours."

"You still seem puzzled, Mr. Trenoweth. Very well, I will even go on to explain further. The person who engraved this clasp meant to tell us that something—let us say treasure, for sake of argument—could be found by anyone who drew two lines from some place unknown: one 27 feet in length in direction N.N.W. from the South Point of that place; the other 22 feet due West of a certain Ring on the North side of that same place. So far I trust I make my meaning clear. That which we have agreed to call the treasure lies buried at a depth of 4 feet 6 inches on the spot where these two lines intersect. But the person (you or I, for the sake of argument) who seeks this treasure must start at full moon. Why? Obviously because the spring tides occur with a full moon, consequently the low ebb. We must expect, then, to find our treasure buried in a spot which is only uncovered at dead low water; and to this conclusion I am also helped by the last sentence, which says, 'Low water 1.5 hours.' It is then, I submit, Mr. Trenoweth, in some such place that we must look for our treasure; the only question being, 'Where is that place?'"

I was waiting for this, and a great tide of joy swept over me as I reflected that after all he had not solved the mystery. The clasp told nothing, the key told nothing. The secret was safe as yet.

He must have read my thoughts, for he looked steadily at me out of those dark eyes of his, and then said very slowly and deliberately—

"Mr. Trenoweth, it grieves me to taunt your miserable case; but do you mind my saying that you are a fool?"

I simply stared in answer.

"Your father was a fool—a pitiful fool; and you are a fool. Which would lead me, did I not know better, to believe that your grandfather, Amos Trenoweth, was a fool also. I should wrong him if I called him that. He was a villain, a black-hearted, murderous, cold-blooded, damnable villain; but he was only a fool for once in his life, and that was when he trusted in the sense of his descendants."

His voice, as he spoke of my grandfather, grew suddenly shrill and discordant, while his eyes blazed up in furious wrath. In a second or two, however, he calmed himself again and went on quietly as before.

"You wonder, perhaps, why I call you a fool. It is because you have lived for fourteen years with your hand upon riches that would make a king jealous, and have never had the sense to grasp them; it is because you have shut your eyes when you might have seen, have been a beggar when you might have ridden in a carriage. Upon my word, Mr. Jasper Trenoweth, when I think of your folly I have half a mind to be dog-sick with you myself."

What could the man mean? What was this clue which I had never found?

"And all the time it was written upon this key here, as large as life; not only that, but, to leave you no excuse, Amos Trenoweth actually told you that it was written here."

"What do you mean?" stammered I, forced into speech at last.

"Ah! so you have found your voice, have you? What do I mean? Do you mean to say you do not guess even now? Upon my word, I am loth to kill so fair a fool." He regarded me for a moment with pitying contempt, then stretched out his hand and took up my grandfather's key.

"I read here," he said, "written very clearly and distinctly, certain words. You must know those words; but I will repeat them to you to refresh your memory:—"


"Well?" I asked, for—fool that I was—even yet I did not understand.

"Mr. Jasper Trenoweth, did you ever hear tell of such a place as Dead Man's Rock?"

The truth, the whole horrible certainty of it, struck me as one great wave, and rushed over my bent head as with the whirl and roar of many waters. "Dead Man's Rock!" "Dead Man's Rock!" it sang in my ears as it swept me off my feet for a moment and passed, leaving me to sink and battle in the gulf of bottomless despair. And then, as if I really drowned, my past life with all its follies, mistakes, wrecked hopes and baseless dreams, shot swiftly past in one long train. Again I saw my mother's patient, anxious smile, my father's drowned face with the salt drops trickling from his golden hair, the struggle on the rock, the inquest, the awful face at the window, the corpses of my parents stretched side by side upon the bed, the scene in the gambling-hell with all its white and desperate faces, Claire, my lost love, the river, the theatre, Tom's death, and that last dreadful scene, Francesca with the dark blood soaking her white dress and trickling down upon the boards. I tried to put my hands before my eyes, but the cords held and cut my arms like burning steel. Then in a flash I seemed to be striding madly up and down Oxford Street, while still in front of me danced and flew the yellow woman, her every diamond flashing in the gas-light, her cold black eyes, as they turned and mocked me, blazing marsh-lights of doom. Then came the ringing of many bells in my ears, mingled with silvery laughter, as though the fiends were ringing jubilant peals within the pit.

Presently the sights grew dim and died away, but the chiming laughter still continued.

I looked up. It was Colliver laughing, and his face was that of an arch-devil.

"It does me good to see you," he explained; "oh, yes, it is honey to my soul. Fool! and a thousand times fool! that ever I should have lived to triumph thus over you and your accursed house!"

Once more his voice grew shrill and his eyes flashed; once more he collected himself.

"You shall hear it out," he said. "Look here!" and he pulled a greasy book from his pocket. "Here is a nautical almanack. What day is it? December 23rd, or rather some time in the morning of December 24th, Christmas Eve. On the evening of December 24th it is full moon, and dead low water at Falmouth about 11.30 p.m. Fate (do you believe in fate, Mr. Trenoweth?) could not have chosen the time better. In something under twenty hours one of us will have his hands upon the treasure. Which will it be, eh? Which will it be?"

Well I knew which it would be, and the knowledge was bitter as gall.

"A merry Christmas, Mr. Jasper Trenoweth! Peace on earth and good-will—You will bear no malice by that time. So a merry Christmas, and a merry Christmas-box! likewise the compliments of the season, and a happy New Year to you! Where are you going to spend Christmas, Mr. Trenoweth—eh? I am thinking of passing it by the sea. You will, perhaps, try the sea too, only you will be in it. Thames runs swiftly when it has a corpse for cargo. Oho!

"At his red, red lips the merrymaid sips
For the kiss that his sweetheart stole, my lads—
Sing ho! for the bell shall toll!

"I'm afraid no bell will toll for you, Mr. Trenoweth; not yet awhile at any rate. Not till your sweetheart is weary of waiting—

"And the devil has got his due, my lads—
Sing ho! but he waits for you!

"Both waiting for you, Mr. Trenoweth, your sweetheart and the devil— which shall have you? 'Ladies first,' you would say. Aha! I am not so sure. By the way, might I give a guess at your sweetheart's name? Might it begin with a C? Might she be a famous actress? Claire perhaps she calls herself? Aha! Claire's pretty eyes will go red with watching before she sets them on you again. Fie on you to keep so sweet a maiden waiting! And where will you be all the time, Mr. Jasper Trenoweth?"

He stopped at last, mastered by his ferocity and almost panting. But I, for the sound of Claire's name had maddened me, broke out in fury—

"Dog and devil! I shall be lying with all the other victims of your accursed life; dead as my father whom you foully murdered within sight of his home; dead as those other poor creatures you slew upon the Belle Fortune; dead as my mother whose pure mind fled at sight of your infernal face, whose very life fled at sight of your handiwork; dead as John Railton whom you stabbed to death upon—"

"Hush, Mr. Trenoweth! As for your ravings, I love to hear them, and could listen by the hour, did not time press. But I cannot have you talking so loudly, you understand;" and he toyed gently with his knife; "also remember I must be at Dead Man's Rock by half-past eleven to-night."

"Fiend!" I continued, "you can kill me if you like, but I will count your crimes with my last breath. Take my life as you took my friend Tom Loveday's life—Tom whom you knifed in the dark, mistaking him for me. Take it as you took Claire's, if ever man—"

"Claire—Claire dead!" He staggered back a step, and almost at the same moment I thought I caught a sound on the other side of the partition at my back. I listened for a moment, then concluding that my ears had played me some trick, went on again—

"Yes, dead—she killed herself to-night at the theatre—stabbed herself—oh, God! Do you think I care for your knife now? Why, I was going to kill myself, to drown myself, at the very moment when I heard your voice and came on board. I came to kill you. Make the most of it—show me no mercy, for as there is a God in heaven I would have shown you none!"

What was that sound again on the other side of the partition? Whatever it was, Colliver had not heard, for he was musing darkly and looking fixedly at me.

"No, I will show you no mercy," he answered quietly, "for I have sworn to show no mercy to your race, and you are the last of it. But listen, that for a few moments before you die you may shake off your smug complacency and learn what this wealth is, and what kind of brood you Trenoweths are. Dog! The treasure that lies by Dead Man's Rock is treasure weighted with dead men's curses and stained with dead men's blood—wealth won by black piracy upon the high seas—gold for which many a poor soul walked the plank and found his end in the deep waters. It is treasure sacked from many a gallant ship, stripped from many a rotting corpse by that black hound your grandfather, Amos Trenoweth. You guessed that? Let me tell you more.

"There is many a soul crying in heaven and hell for vengeance on your race; but your death to-night, Jasper Trenoweth, shall be the peculiar joy of one. You guessed that your grandfather had crimes upon his soul; but you did not guess the blackest crime on his account—the murder of his dearest friend. Listen. I will be brief with you, but I cannot spare myself the joy of letting you know this much before you die. Know then that when your grandfather was a rich man by this friend's aid—after, with this friend's help, he had laid hands on the secret of the Great Ruby for which for many a year he had thirsted, in the moment of his triumph he turned and slew that friend in order to keep the Ruby to himself.

"That fool, your father, kept a Journal—which no doubt you have read over and over again. Did he tell you how I caught him upon Adam's Peak, sitting with this clasp in his hands before a hideous, graven stone? That stone was cut in ghastly mockery of that friend's face; the bones that lay beneath it were the bones of that friend. There, on that very spot where I met your father face to face, did his father, Amos Trenoweth, strike down my father Ralph Colliver.

"Ah, light is beginning to dawn on your silly brain at last! Yes, pretending to protect the old priest who had the Ruby, he stabbed my father with the very knife found in your father's heart, stabbed him before his wife's eyes on that little lawn upon the mountain-side; and, when my helpless mother called vengeance upon him, handed the still reeking knife to her and bade her do her worst. Ah, but she kept that knife. Did you mark what was engraved upon the blade? That knife had a good memory, Mr. Jasper Trenoweth.

"Let me go on. As if that deed were not foul enough, he caused the old priest to carve—being skilful with the chisel—that vile distortion of his dead friend's face out of a huge boulder lying by, and then murdered him too for the Ruby's sake, and tumbled their bodies into the trough together. Such was Amos Trenoweth. Are you proud of your descent?

"I never saw my father. I was not born until three months after this, and not until I was ten years old did my mother tell me of his fate.

"Your grandfather was a fool, Jasper Trenoweth, to despise her; for she was young then and she could wait. She was beautiful then, and Amos Trenoweth himself had loved her. What is she now? Speak, for you have seen her."

As he spoke I seemed to see again that yellow face, those awful, soulless eyes, and hear her laugh as she gazed down from the box upon my dying love.

"Ah, beauty goes. It went for ever on that day when Amos Trenoweth spat in her face and taunted her as she clung to the body of her husband. Beauty goes, but revenge can wait; to-night it has come; to-night a thousand dead men's ghosts shall be glad, and point at your body as it goes tossing out to sea. To-night—but let me tell the rest in a word or two, for time presses. How I was brought up, how my mad mother—for she is mad on every point but one—trained me to the sea, how I left it at length and became an attorney's clerk, all this I need not dwell upon. But all this time the thought of revenge never left me for an hour; and if it had, my mother would have recalled it.

"Well, we settled in Plymouth and I was bound a clerk to your grandfather's attorney, still with the same purpose. There I learnt of Amos Trenoweth's affairs, but only to a certain extent; for of the wealth which he had so bloodily won I could discover nothing; and yet I knew he possessed riches which make the heart faint even to think upon. Yet for all I could discover, his possessions were simply those of a struggling farmer, his business absolutely nothing. I was almost desperate, when one day a tall, gaunt and aged man stepped into the office, asked for my employer, and gave the name of Amos Trenoweth. Oh, how I longed to kill him as he stood there! And how little did he guess that the clerk of whom he took no more notice than of a stone, would one day strike his descendants off the face of the earth and inherit the wealth for which he had sold his soul—the great Ruby of Ceylon!

"My voice trembled with hate as I announced him and showed him into the inner room. Then I closed the door and listened. He was uneasy about his Will—the fool—and did not know that all his possessions would necessarily become his son's. In my heart I laughed at his ignorance; but I learnt enough—enough to wait patiently for years and finally to track Ezekiel Trenoweth to his death.

"It was about this time that I fell in love. In this as in everything through life I have been cursed with the foulest luck, but in this as in everything else my patience has won in the end. Lucy Luttrell loved another man called Railton—John Railton. He was another fool—you are all fools—but she married him and had a daughter. I wonder if you can guess who that daughter was?"

He broke off and looked at me with fiendish malice.

"You hound!" I cried, "she was Janet Railton—Claire Luttrell; and you murdered her father as you say Amos Trenoweth murdered yours."

"Right," he answered coolly. "Quite right. Oh, the arts by which I enticed that man to drink and then to crime! Even now I could sit and laugh over them by the hour. Why, man, there was not a touch of guile in the fellow when I took him in hand, and yet it was he that afterwards took your father's life. He tried it once in Bombay and bungled it sadly: he did it neatly enough, though, on the jib-boom of the Belle Fortune. I lent him the knife: I would have done it myself, but Railton was nearer; and besides it is always better to be a witness."

What was that rustling sound behind the partition? Colliver did not hear it, at any rate, but went on with his tale, and though his eyes were dancing flames of hate his voice was calm now as ever.

"I had stolen half the clasp beforehand from the cabin floor where that stupendous idiot, Ezekiel Trenoweth, had dropped it. Railton caught him before he dropped, but I did not know he had time to get the box away, for just then a huge wave broke over us and before the next we both jumped for the Rock. I thought that Railton must have been sucked back, for I only clung on myself by the luckiest chance. It was pitch-dark and impossible to see. I called his name, but he either could not hear for the roar, or did not choose to answer, so after a bit I stopped. I thought him dead, and he no doubt thought me dead, until we met upon Dead Man's Rock.

"Shall I finish? Oh, yes, you shall hear the whole story. After the inquest I escaped back to Plymouth, told Lucy that her husband had been drowned at sea, and finally persuaded her to leave Plymouth and marry me. So I triumphed there, too: oh, yes, I have triumphed throughout."

"You hound!" I cried.

He laughed a low musical laugh and went on again—

"Ah, yes, you are angry of course; but I let that pass. I have one account to settle with you Trenoweths, and that is enough for me. Three times have I had you in my power, Mr. Jasper Trenoweth—three times or four—and let you escape. Once beneath Dead Man's Rock when I had my fingers on your young weasand and was stopped by those cursed fishermen. Idiots that they were, they thought the sight of me had frightened you and made you faint. Faint! You would have been dead in another half-minute. How I laughed in my sleeve while that uncle of yours was trying to make me understand—me—what was my name then?—oh, ay, Georgio Rhodojani. However, you escaped that time: and once more you hardly guessed how near you were to death, when I looked in at the window on the night after the inquest. Why, in my mind I was tossing up whether or not I should murder you and your white-faced mother. I should have done so, but thought you might hold some knowledge of the secret after your meeting with Railton, so that it seemed better to bide my time."

"If it be any satisfaction to you," I interrupted, "to know that had you killed me then you would never have laid hands on that clasp yonder, you are welcome to it."

"It is," he answered. "I am glad I did not kill you both: it left your mother time to see her dead husband, and has given me the pleasure of killing you now: the treat improves with keeping. Well, let me go on. After that I was forced to leave the country for some time—"

"For another piece of villainy, which your wife discovered."

"How do you know that? Oh, from Claire, I suppose: however, it does not matter. When I came back I found you: found you, and struck again. But again my cursed luck stood in my way and that damned friend of yours knocked me senseless. Look at this mark on my cheek."

"Look at the clasp and you will see where your blow was struck."

"Ah, that was it, was it?" he said, examining the clasp slowly. "I suppose you thought it lucky at the time. So it was—for me. For, though I made another mistake in the fog that night, I got quits with your friend at any rate. I have chafed often enough at these failures, but it has all come right in the end. I ought to have killed your father upon Adam's Peak; but he was a big man, while I had no pistol and could not afford to risk a mistake. Everything, they say, comes to the man who can wait. Your father did not escape, neither will you, and when I think of the joy it was to me to know that you and Claire, of all people—"

But I would hear no more. Mad as I was with shame and horror for my grandfather's cruelty, I knew this man, notwithstanding his talk of revenge, to be a vile and treacherous scoundrel. So when he spoke of Claire I burst forth—

"Dog, this is enough! I have listened to your tale. But when you talk of Claire—Claire whom you killed to-night—then, dog, I spit upon you; kill me, and I hope the treasure may curse you as it has cursed me; kill me; use your knife, for I will shout—"

With a dreadful snarl he was on me and smote me across the face. Then as I continued to call and shout, struck me one fearful blow behind the ear. I remember that the dim lamp shot out a streak of blood-red flame, the cabin was lit for one brief instant with a flash of fire, a thousand lights darted out, and then—then came utter blackness—a vague sensation of being caught up and carried, of plunging down—down—

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