Dead Man's Rock by Arthur Quiller-Couch



There was no escape. I have said that the ascent of Dead Man's Rock was possible, but that was upon the northern side, from which we were now utterly cut off. Hemmed in as we were between the sheer cliff and the precipice, we could only sit still and await the man's coming. Utter fear had apparently robbed my companion of all his faculties, for he sat, a stony image of despair, looking with staring, vacant eyes at the spot where his enemy would appear; while as for me, dreading I knew not what, I clung to the rock and listened breathlessly to the sound of the footsteps as they came nearer and nearer. Presently, within about fifteen feet, as I guess, of our hiding-place, they suddenly ceased, and a full, rich voice broke out in song—

"Sing hey! for the dead man's eyes, my lads;
Sing ho! for the dead man's hand;
;For his glittering eyes are the salt sea's prize,
And his fingers clutch the sand, my lads—
Sing ho! how they grip the land!
"Sing hey! for the dead man's lips, my lads;
Sing ho! for the dead man's soul.
At his red, red lips the merrymaid sips
For the kiss that his sweetheart stole, my lads—
Sing ho! for the bell shall toll!"

The words were full and clear upon the morning air—so clear that their weird horror, together with the strangeness of the tune (which had a curious catch in the last line but one) and, above all, the sweetness of the voice, held me spellbound. I glanced again at my companion. He had not changed his position, but still sat motionless, save that his dry lips were again working and twitching as though they tried to follow the words of the song. Presently the footsteps again began to advance, and again the voice broke out—

"So it's hey! for the homeward bound, my lads,
And ho! for the drunken crew.
For his messmates round lie dead and drowned,
And the devil has got his due, my Lads—
Sing ho! but he—"

He saw us. He had turned the corner, and stood facing us; and as he faced us, I understood my companion's horror. The new-comer wore a shirt of the same red colour as my comrade, and trousers of the same stuff, but less cut and torn with the rocks. At his side hung an empty sheath, that must once have held a short knife, and the handle of another knife glittered above his waistband. But it was his face that fascinated all my gaze. Even had I no other cause to remember it, I could never forget the lines of that wicked mouth, or the glitter in those cruel eyes as their first sharp flash of surprise faded into a mocking and evil smile.

For a minute or so he stood tranquilly watching our confusion, while the smile grew more and more devilishly bland. Not a word was spoken. What my comrade did I know not, but, for myself, I could not take my eyes from that fiendish face.

At last he spoke: in a sweet and silvery voice, that in company with such eyes was an awful and fantastic lie, he spoke—

"Well, this is pleasant indeed. To run across an old comrade in flesh and blood when you thought him five fathom deep in the salt water is one of the pleasantest things in life, isn't it, lad? To put on sackcloth and ashes, to go about refusing to be comforted, to find no joy in living because an old shipmate is dead and drowned, and then suddenly to come upon him doing the very same for you—why, there's nothing that compares with it for real, hearty pleasure; is there, John? You seem a bit dazed, John: it's too good to be true, you think? Well, it shows your good heart; shows what I call real feeling. But you always were a true friend, always the one to depend upon, eh, John? Why don't you speak, John, and say how glad you are to see your old friend back, alive and hearty?"

John's lips were trembling, and something seemed working in his throat, but no sound came.

"Ah, John, you were always the one for feeling a thing, and now the joy is too much for you. Considerate, too, it was of you, and really kind—but that's you, John, all over—to wear an old shipmate's cap in affectionate memory. No, John, don't deprive yourself of it."

The wretched man felt with quivering fingers for the cap, took it off and laid it on the rock beside me, but never spoke.

"And who is the boy, John? But, there, you were always one to make friends. Everybody loves you; they can't help themselves. Lucy loved you when she wouldn't look at me, would she? You were always so gentle and quiet, John, except perhaps when the drink was in you: and even then you didn't mean any harm; it was only your play, wasn't it, John?"

John's face was a shade whiter, and again something worked in his throat, but still he uttered no word.

"Well, anyhow, John, it's a real treat to see you—and looking so well, too. To think that we two, of all men, should have been on the jib-boom when she struck! By the way, John, wasn't there another with us? Now I come to think of it, there must have been another. What became of him? Did he jump too, John?"

John found speech at last. "No; I don't think he jumped." The words came hoarsely and with difficulty. I looked at him; cold and shivering as he was, the sweat was streaming down his face.

"No? I wonder why."

No answer.

"You're quite sure about it, John? Because, you know, it would be a thousand pities if he were thrown up on this desolate shore without seeing the faces of his old friends. So I hope you are quite sure, John; think again."

"He didn't jump."


"He fell."

"Poor fellow, poor fellow!" The words came in the softest, sweetest tones of pity. "I suppose there is no mistake about his melancholy end?"

"I saw him fall. He just let go and fell; it's Bible oath, Captain— it's Bible oath. That's how it happened; he just—let go—and fell. I saw it with my very eyes, and—Captain, it was your knife." To this effect John, with great difficulty and a nervous shifting stare that wandered from the Captain to me until it finally rested somewhere out at sea.

The Captain gave a sharp keen glance, smiled softly, set his thin lips together as though whistling inaudibly, and turned to me.

"So you know John, my boy? He's a good fellow, is John; just the sort of quiet, steady, Christian man to make a good companion for the young. No swearing, drinking, or vice about John Railton; and so truthful, too—the very soul of truth! Couldn't tell a lie for all the riches of the Indies. Ah, you are in luck to have such a friend! It's not often a good companion is such good company."

I looked helplessly at the model of truth to see how he took this tribute; but his eyes were still fixed in that eternal stare at the sea.

"And so, John, you saw him fall? 'Who saw him die?'—'I,' said the soul of truth, 'with my little eye'—and you have very sharp eyes, John. However, the poor fellow's gone; 'fell off,' you say? I don't wonder you feel it so; but, John, with all our sympathy for the unfortunate dead, don't you think this is a good opportunity for reading the Will? We three, you know, may possibly never meet again, and I am sure our young friend—what name did you say? Jasper?—I am sure that our young friend Mr. Jasper would like the melancholy satisfaction of hearing the Will."

The man's eyes were devilish. John, as he faced about and caught their gaze, looked round like a wild beast at bay.

"Will? What do you mean? I don't know—I haven't got no Will."

"None of your own, John, none of your own; but maybe you might know something of the last Will and Testament of—shall we say—another party? Think, John; don't hurry, think a bit."

"Lord, strike me—"

"Hush, John, hush! Think of our young friend Mr. Jasper. Besides, you know, you were such a friend of the deceased—such a real friend—and knew all his secrets so thoroughly, John, that I am sure if you only consider quietly, you must remember; you who watched his last moments, who saw him—'fall,' did you say?"

No answer.

"Come, come, John; I'm sorry to press you, but really our young friend and I must insist on an answer. For consider, John, if you refuse to join in our conversation, we shall have to go—reluctantly, of course, but still we shall have to go—and talk somewhere else. Just think how very awkward that would be."

"You devil—you devil!"

John's voice was still hoarse and low, but it had a something in it now that sounded neither of hope nor fear.

"Well, yes; devil if you like: but the devil must have his due, you know—

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

"Yes, John, devil or no devil, I'm waiting for you. As to having my due, why, a lucky fellow like you shouldn't grudge it. Why, you've got Lucy, John: what more can you want? We both wanted Lucy, but you got her, and now she's waiting at home for you. It would be awkward if I turned up with the news that you were languishing in gaol—I merely put a case, John—and little Jenny wouldn't have many sweethearts if it got about that her father—and I suppose you are her father—"

Before the words were well out of his mouth John had him by the throat. There was a short, fierce struggle, an oath, a gleam of light—and then, with a screech of mortal pain and a wild clutch at the air, my companion fell backwards over the cliff.

It was all the work of a moment—a shriek, a splash, and then silence. How long the silence lasted I cannot tell. What happened next—whether I cried or fainted, looked or shut my eyes—is to me an absolute blank. Only I remember gradually waking up to the fact that the Captain was standing over me, wiping his knife on a piece of weed he had picked up on the rock, and regarding me with a steady stare.

I now suppose that during those few moments my life hung in the balance: but at the time I was too dazed and stunned to comprehend anything. The Captain slowly replaced his knife, hesitated, went to the ledge and peered over, and then finally came back to me.

"Are you the kind of boy that's talkative?" His voice was as sweet as ever, but his eyes were scorching me like live coals.

I suppose I must have signified my denial, for he went on—

"You heard what he called me? He called me a devil; a devil, mark you; and that's what I am."

In my state of mind I could believe anything; so I easily believed this.

"Being a devil, naturally I can hear what little boys say, no matter where I am; and when little boys are talkative I can reach them, no matter how they hide. I come on them in bed sometimes, and sometimes from behind when they are not looking; there's no escaping me. You've heard of Apollyon perhaps? Well, that's who I am."

I had heard of Apollyon in Bunyan; and I had no doubt he was speaking the truth.

"I catch little boys when they are not looking, and carry them off, and then their fathers and mothers don't see any more of them. But they die very slowly, very slowly indeed—you will find out how if ever I catch you talking."

But I did not at all want to know; I was quite satisfied, and apparently he was also; for, after staring at me a little longer, he told me to get up and go down the rock in front of him.

The agonies I suffered during that descent no pen can describe. Every moment I expected to feel my shoulder gripped from behind, or to feel the hands of some mysterious and infernal power around my neck. Close behind me followed my companion, humming—

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

And though I was far from singing hey! at the prospect, I felt that he meant what he said.

Arrived at the foot of the rock, we passed through the archway on to Ready-Money Cove. Turning down to the edge of the sea, the Captain scanned the water narrowly, but there was no trace of the hapless John. With a muttered curse, he began quickly to climb out along the north side of the rock, just above the sea-level, and looked again into the depths. Once more he was disappointed. Flinging off his clothes, he dived again and again, until from sheer exhaustion he crept out, bundled on his shirt and trousers, and climbed back to me.

"Curse him! where can he be?"

I now saw for the first time how terribly worn and famished the man was: he looked like a wolf, and his white teeth were bare in his rage. He had cut his foot on the rock. Still keeping his evil eye upon me, he knelt down by the water's edge and began slowly to bathe the wound.

"By the way, boy, what did you say your name was? Jasper? Jasper what?"


"Ten thousand devils!"

He was on his feet, and had gripped me by the shoulder with a furious clutch. I turned sick and cold with terror. The blue sky swam and circled around me: then came mist and black darkness, lit only by the gleam of two terrible eyes: a shout—and I knew no more.

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