Dead Man's Rock by Arthur Quiller-Couch

BOOK I
THE QUEST OF THE GREAT RUBY

CHAPTER XI
TELLS OF THE WRITING UPON THE GOLDEN CLASP;
AND HOW I TOOK DOWN THE GREAT KEY


So ended my father's Journal—in a silence full of tragedy, a silence filled in with the echo of that awful cry borne landwards on the wings of the storm; and now, in the presence of this mute witness, shaping itself into the single word "Murder." Of the effect of the reading upon us, I need not speak at any length. For the most part it had passed without comment; but the occasional choking of Uncle Loveday's voice, my own quickening breath as the narrative continued, and the tears that poured down the cheeks of both of us as we heard the simple loving messages for Margery—messages so vainly tender, so pitifully fond—were evidence enough of our emotion.

I say that we both wept, and it is true. But though, do what I could, my young heart would swell and ache until the tears came at times, yet for the most part I sat with cold and gathering hate. It was mournful enough when I consider it. That the hand which penned these anxious lines should be cold and stiff, the ear for which they were so lovingly intended for ever deaf: that all the warm hopes should end beside that bed where husband and wife lay dead— surely this was tragic enough. But I did not think of this at the time—or but dimly if at all. Hate, impotent hate, was consuming my young heart as the story drew to its end; hate and no other feeling possessed me as Uncle Loveday broke abruptly off, turned the page in search of more, found none, and was silent.

Once he had stopped for a moment to call for a candle. Mrs. Busvargus brought it, trimmed the wick, and again retired. This was our only interruption. Joe Roscorla had not returned from Polkimbra; so we were left alone to the gathering shadows and the horror of the tale.

When my uncle finished there was a long pause. Finally he reached out his hand for his pipe, filled it, and looked up. His kindly face was furrowed with the marks of weeping, and big tears were yet standing in his eyes.

"Murdered," he said, "murdered, if ever man was murdered."

"Yes," I echoed, "murdered."

"But we'll have the villain," he exclaimed, bringing his fist down on the table with sudden energy. "We'll have him for all his cunning, eh, boy?"

"Not yet," I answered; "he is far away by this time. But we'll have him: oh, yes, we'll have him."

Uncle Loveday looked at me oddly for a moment, and then repeated—

"Yes, yes, we'll have him safe enough. Joe Roscorla must have given the alarm before he had time to go far. And to think," he added, throwing up his hand, "that I talked to the villain only yesterday morning as though he were some unfortunate victim of the sea!"

I am sure that my uncle was regretting the vast deal of very fine language he had wasted: and, indeed, he had seldom more nobly risen to an occasion.

"Pearls, pearls before swine! Swine did I say? Snakes, if it's not an insult to a snake to give its name to such as Colliver. What did you say, Jasper?"

"We'll have him."

"Jasper, my boy," said he, scanning me for a second time oddly, "maybe you'll be better in bed. Try to sleep again, my poor lad— what do you think?"

"I think," I answered, "that we have not yet looked at the clasp."

"My dear boy, you're right: you're right again. Let us look at it."

The piece of metal resembled, as I have said, the half of a waist-buckle, having a socket but no corresponding hook. In shape it was slightly oblong, being about 2 inches by one and a half inches. It glittered brightly in the candle's ray as Uncle Loveday polished it with his handkerchief, readjusted his spectacles, and bent over it.

At the end of a minute he looked up, and said—

"I cannot make head or tail of it. It seems plain enough to read, but makes nonsense. Come over here and see for yourself."

I bent over his shoulder, and this is what I saw—

The edge of the clasp was engraved with a border of flowers and beasts, all exquisitely small. Within this was cut, by a much rougher hand, an inscription which was plain enough to read, though making no sense whatever. The writing was arranged in five lines of three words apiece, and ran thus:—

MOON END SOUTH
N.N.W. 22 FEET
NORTH SIDE     4
DEEP AT POINT
WATER   1.5 HOURS

I read the words a full dozen times, and then, failing of any interpretation, turned to Uncle Loveday—

"Jasper," said he, "to my mind those words make nonsense."

"And to mine, uncle."

"Now attend to me, Jasper. This is evidently but one half of the clasp which your father discovered. That's as plain as daylight. The question is, what has become of the other half, of the hook that should fit into this eye? Now, what I want you to do is to try and remember if this was all that the man Railton gave you."

"This was all."

"You are quite certain?"

"Quite."

"You did not leave the other piece behind in the cow-shed by any chance?"

"No, for I looked at the packet before I hid it, and there was only one piece of metal."

"Very well. One half of the golden clasp being lost, the next question is, what has become of it?"

I nodded.

"To this," said Uncle Loveday, bending forward over the table, "two answers are possible. Either it lies at the bottom of the sea with the rest of the freight of the Belle Fortune, or it is in Colliver's possession."

"It may lie beneath Dead Man's Rock, in John Railton's pocket," I suggested.

"True, my boy, true; you put another case. But anyhow it makes no difference. If it lies at the bottom of the sea, whether in Railton's pocket or not, the secret is safe. If it is in Colliver's possession the secret is safe, unless he has seen and learnt by heart this half of the inscription. In any case, I am sorry to tell you— and this is what I was coming to—the secret is closed against us for the time."

"That is not certain," said I.

"Excuse me, Jasper, it is quite certain. You admit yourself that this writing is nonsense. Well and good. But besides this, I would have you remember," pursued Uncle Loveday, turning once more to my father's Journal, "that Ezekiel expressly says, 'The inscription ran right across the clasp.' It could be read easily enough and contained accurate directions for searching in some spot, but where that spot was it did not reveal—"

"Quite so," I interrupted, "and that is just what we have to discover."

"How?"

"Why, by means of the key, as the parchment and the Will plainly show. We may still be beaten, but even so, we shall know whereabouts to look, if we can only catch Colliver."

"Bless the boy!" said Uncle Loveday, "he certainly has a head."

"Uncle," continued I, rising to my feet, "the secret of the Great Ruby is written upon my grandfather's key. That key was to be taken down when he that undertook the task of discovering the secret should have returned and crossed the threshold of Lantrig. Uncle, my father has crossed the threshold of Lantrig—"

"Feet foremost, feet foremost, my boy. Oh, poor Ezekiel!"

"Feet foremost, yes," I continued—"dead and murdered, yes. But he has come: come to find my mother dead, but still he has come. Uncle, I am the only Trenoweth left to Lantrig; think of it, the only one left—"

"Poor Ezekiel! Poor Margery!"

"Yes, uncle, and all I inherit is the knife that murdered my father, and this key. I have the knife, and I will take down the key. We are not beaten yet."

I drew a chair under the great beam, and mounted it. When first my grandfather returned he had hung the iron key upon its hook, giving strict injunctions that no one should touch it. There ever since it had hung, the centre of a host of spiders' webs. Even my poor mother's brush, so diligent elsewhere, had never invaded this sacred relic, and often during our lonely winter evenings had she told me the story of it: how that Amos Trenoweth's dying curse was laid upon the person that should touch it, and how the spiders' days were numbered with every day that brought my father nearer home.

There it hung now, scarcely to be seen for cobwebs. Its hour had come at last. Even as I stretched out my hand a dozen horrid things hurried tumultuously back into darkness. Even as I laid my hand on it, a big ungainly spider, scared but half incredulous, started in alarm, hesitated, and finally made off at full speed for shelter.

This, then, was the key that should unlock the treasure—this, that had from the first hung over us, the one uncleansed spot in Lantrig: this was the talisman—this grimy thing lying in my hand. The spiders had been jealous in their watch.

Stepping down, I got a cloth and brushed away the cobwebs. The key was covered thickly with rust, but even so I could see that something was written upon it. For about a minute I stood polishing it, and then carried it forward to the light.

Yes, there was writing upon it, both on the handle and along the shaft—writing that, as it shaped itself before my eyes, caused them to stare in wrathful incredulity, caused my heart to sink at first in dismay and then to swell in mad indignation, caused my blood to turn to gall and my thoughts to very bitterness. For this was what I read:—

On the handle were engraved in large capitals the initials A. T. with the date MDCCCXII. Alone the shaft, from handle to wards, ran on either side the following sentence in old English lettering:—

THY HOUSE IS SET UPON THE SANDS AND THY HOPES BY A DEAD MAN.

This was all. This short sentence was the sum of all the vain quest on which my father had met his end. "Thy house is set upon the sands," and even now had crumbled away beneath Amos Trenoweth's curse "Thy hopes by a dead man," and even now he on whom our hopes had rested, lay upstairs a pitiful corpse. Was ever mockery more fiendish? As the full cruelty of the words broke in upon me, once again I seemed to hear the awful cry from the sea, but now among its voices rang a fearful laugh as though Amos Trenoweth's soul were making merry in hell over his grim jest—the slaughter of his son and his son's wife.

White with desperate passion, I turned and hurled the accursed key across the room into the blazing hearth.


END OF BOOK I



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