Dead Man's Rock by Arthur Quiller-Couch



I came gradually back to consciousness amid a buzz of voices. Uncle Loveday was bending over me, his every button glistening with sympathy, and his face full of kindly anxiety. What had happened, or how I came to be lying thus upon the sand, I could not at first remember, until my gaze, wandering over my uncle's shoulder, met the Captain's eyes regarding me with a keen and curious stare.

He was standing in the midst of a small knot of fishermen, every now and then answering their questions with a gesture, a shrug of the shoulders, or shake of the head; but chiefly regarding my recovery and waiting, as I could see, for me to speak.

"Poor boy!" said Uncle Loveday. "Poor boy! I suppose the sight of this man frightened him."

I caught the Captain's eye, and nodded feebly.

"Ah, yes, yes. You see," he explained, turning to the shipwrecked man, "your sudden appearance upset him: and to tell you the honest truth, my friend, in your present condition—in your present condition, mind you—your appearance is perhaps somewhat—startling. Shall we say, startling?"

In answer to my uncle's apologetic hesitation the stranger merely spread out his palms and shrugged his shoulders.

"Ah, yes. A foreigner evidently. Well, well, although our coast is not precisely hospitable, I believe its inhabitants are at any rate free from that reproach. Jasper, my boy, can you walk now? If so, Joseph here will see you home, and we will do our best for the—the— foreign gentleman thus unceremoniously cast on our shores."

My uncle seemed to regard magnificence of speech as the natural due of a foreigner: whether from some hazy conception of "foreign politeness," or a hasty deduction that what was not the language of one part of the world must be that of another, I cannot say. At any rate, the fishermen regarded him approvingly as the one man who could—if human powers were equal to it—extricate them from the present deadlock.

"You do not happen, my friend, to be in a position to inform us whether any—pardon the expression—any corpses are now lying on the rocks to bear witness to this sad catastrophe?"

Again the stranger made a gesture of perplexity.

"Dear, dear! I forgot. Jasper, when you get home, read very carefully that passage about the Tower of Babel. Whatever the cause of that melancholy confusion, its reality is impressed upon us when we stand face to face with one whom I may perhaps be allowed to call, metaphorically, a dweller in Mesopotamia."

As no one answered, my uncle took silence for consent, and called him so twice—to his own great satisfaction and the obvious awe of the fishermen.

"It is evident," he continued, "that this gentleman (call him by what name you will) is in immediate need of food and raiment. If such, as I do not doubt, can be obtained at Polkimbra, our best course is to accompany him thither. I trust my proposition meets with his approval."

It met, at any rate, with the approval of the fishermen, who translated Uncle Loveday's speech into gestures. Being answered with a nod of the head and a few hasty foreign words, they began to lead the stranger away in their midst. As he turned to go, he glanced for the last time at me with a strange flickering smile, at which my heart grew sick. Uncle Loveday lingered behind to adjure Joe to be careful of me as we went up the cliff, and then, with a promise that he would run in to see mother later in the day, trotted after the rest. They passed out of sight through the archway of Dead Man's Rock.

For a minute or so we plodded across the sand in silence. Joe Roscorla was Uncle Loveday's "man," a word in our parts connoting ability to look after a horse, a garden, a pig or two, or, indeed, anything that came in the way of being looked after. At the present moment I came in that way; consequently, after some time spent in reflective silence, Joe began to speak.

"You'm looking wisht."

"Am I, Joe?"


There was a pause: then Joe continued—

"I don't hold by furriners: let alone they be so hard to get along with in the way of convarsing, they be but a heathen lot. But, Jasper, warn't it beautiful?"

"What, Joe?"

"Why, to see the doctor tackle the lingo. Beautiful, I culls it; but there, he's a scholard, and no mistake, and 'tain't no good for to say he ain't. Not as ever I've heerd it said."

"But, Joe, the man didn't seem to understand him."

"Durn all furriners, say I; they be so cursed pigheaded. Understand? I'll go bail he understood fast enough."

Joe's opinions coincided so fatally with my certainty that I held my tongue. "A dweller in—what did he call the spot, Jasper?"


"Well, I can't azacly say as I've seen any from them parts, but they be all of a piece. Thicky chap warn't in the way when prettiness was sarved out, anyhow. Of all the cut-throat chaps as ever I see—Mark my words, 'tain't no music as he's come after."

This seemed so indisputable that I did not venture to contradict it.

"I bain't clear about thicky wreck. Likely as not 'twas the one I seed all yesterday tacking about: and if so be as I be right, a pretty lot of lubbers she must have had aboard. Jonathan, the coast-guard, came down to Lizard Town this morning, and said he seed a big vessel nigh under the cliffs toward midnight, or fancied he seed her: but fustly Jonathan's a buffle-head, and secondly 'twas pitch-dark; so if as he swears there weren't no blue light, 'tain't likely any man could see, let alone a daft fule like Jonathan. But, there, 'tain't no good for to blame he; durn Government! say I, for settin' one man, and him a born fule, to mind seven mile o' coast on a night when an airey mouse cou'dn' see his hand afore his face."

"What was the vessel like, Joe, that you saw?"

"East Indyman, by the looks of her; and a passel of lubberin' furriners aboard, by the way she was worked. I seed her miss stays twice myself: so when Jonathan turns up wi' this tale, I says to myself, 'tis the very same. Though 'tis terrible queer he never heard nowt; but he ain't got a ha'porth o' gumption, let alone that by time he's been cloppin' round his seven mile o' beat half a dozen ships might go to kingdom come."

With this, for we had come to the door of Lantrig, Joe bid me good-bye, and turned along the cliffs to seek fresh news at Polkimbra.

Instead of going indoors at once I watched his short, oddly-shaped figure stride away, and then sat down on the edge of the cliff for a minute to collect my thoughts. The day was ripening into that mellow glory which is the peculiar grace of autumn. Below me the sea, still flaked with spume, was gradually heaving to rest; the morning light outlined the cliffs in glistening prominence, and clothed them, as well as the billowy clouds above, with a reality which gave the lie to my morning's adventure. The old doorway, too, looked so familiar and peaceful, the old house so reassuring, that I half wondered if I had not two lives, and were not coming back to the old quiet everyday experience again.

Suddenly I remembered the packet and the letter. I put my hand into my pocket and drew them out. The packet was a tin box, strapped around with a leathern band: on the top, between the band and the box, was a curious piece of yellow metal that looked like the half of a waist-buckle, having a socket but without any corresponding hook. On the metal were traced some characters which I could not read. The tin box was heavy and plain, and the strap soaking with salt water.

I turned to the letter; it was all but a pulp, and in its present state illegible. Carefully smoothing it out, I slipped it inside the strap and turned to hide my prize; for such was my fear of the man who called himself Apollyon, that I could know no peace of mind whilst it remained about me. How should I hide it? After some thought, I remembered that a stone or two in the now empty cow-house had fallen loose. With a hasty glance over my shoulder, I crept around and into the shed. The stones came away easily in my hand. With another hurried look, I slipped the packet into the opening, stole out of the shed, and entered the house by the back door.

My mother had been up for some time—it was now about nine o'clock— and had prepared our breakfast. Her face was still pale, but some of its anxiety left it as I entered. She was evidently waiting for me to speak. Something in my looks, however, must have frightened her, for, as I said nothing, she began to question me.

"Well, Jasper, is there any news?"

"There was a ship wrecked on Dead Man's Rock last night, but they've not found anything except—"

"What was it called?"

"The Mary Jane—that is—I don't quite know."

Up to this time I had forgotten that mother would want to know about my doings that morning. As an ordinary thing, of course I should have told her whatever I had seen or heard, but my terror of the Captain and the awful consequences of saying too much now flashed upon me with hideous force. I had heard about the Mary Jane from the unhappy John. What if I had already said too much? I bent over my breakfast in confusion.

After a dreadful pause, during which I felt, though I could not see, the astonishment in my mother's eyes, she said—

"You don't quite know?"

"No; I think it must have been the Mary Jane, but there was a strange sailor picked up. Uncle Loveday found him, and he seemed to be a foreigner, and he said—I mean—I thought—it was the name, but—"

This was worse and worse. Again at my wits' end, I tried to go on with my breakfast. After awhile I looked up, and saw my mother watching me with a look of mingled surprise and reproach.

"Was this sailor the only one saved?"

"No—that is, I mean—yes; they only found one."

I had never lied to my mother before, and almost broke down with the effort. Words seemed to choke me, and her saddening eyes filled me with torment.

"Jasper dear, what is the matter with you? Why are you so strange?"

I tried to look astonished, but broke down miserably. Do what I would, my eyes seemed to be beyond my control; they would not meet her steady gaze.

"Uncle Loveday is coming up later on. He's looking after the Cap—I mean the sailor, and said he would run in afterwards."

"What is this sailor like?"

This question fairly broke me down. Between my dread of the Captain and her pained astonishment, I could only sit stammering and longing for the earth to gape and swallow me up. Suddenly a dreadful suspicion struck my mother.

"Jasper! Jasper! it cannot be—you cannot mean—that it was his ship?"

"No, mother, no! Father is all right. He said—I mean—it was not his ship."

"Oh! thank God! But you are hiding something from me! What is it? Jasper dear, what are you hiding?"

"Mother, I think it was the Mary Jane. But it was not father's ship. Father's all right. And, mother, don't ask me any more; Uncle Loveday will tell all about it. And—I'm not very well, mother. I think—"

Want of sleep, indeed, and the excitement of the morning, had broken me down. My mother stifled her desire to hear more, and tenderly saw me to bed, guessing my fatigue, but only dimly apprehensive of anything beyond. In bed I lay all that morning, but could get no sleep. The vengeance of that dreadful man seemed to fill the little room and charge the atmosphere with horror. "I come on them in bed sometimes, and sometimes from behind when they're not looking"—the words rang in my ears, and could not be muffled by the bed-clothes; whilst, if I began to doze, the dreadful burthen of his song—

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

With the peculiar catch of its lilt, would suddenly make me start up, wide awake, with every nerve in my body dancing to its grisly measure.

At last, towards noon, I dozed off into a restless slumber, but only to see each sight and hear each sound repeated with every grotesque and fantastic variation. Dead Man's Rock rose out of a sea of blood, peopled with hundreds of ghastly faces, each face the distorted likeness of John or the Captain. Blood was everywhere—on their shirts, their hands, their faces, in splashes across the rock itself, in vivid streaks across the spume of the sea. The very sun peered through a blood-red fog, and the waves, the mournful gulls, the echoes from the cliff, took up the everlasting chorus, led by one silvery demoniac voice—

"Sing ho! but he waits for you!"

Finally, as I lay tossing and tormented with this phantom horror in my eyes and ears, the sound died imperceptibly away into the soft hush of two well-known voices, and I opened my eyes to see mother with Uncle Loveday standing at my bedside.

"The boy's a bit feverish," said my uncle's voice; "he has not got over his fright just yet."

"Hush! he's waking!" replied my mother; and as I opened my eyes she bent down and kissed me. How inexpressibly sweet was that kiss after the nightmare of my dream!

"Jasper dear, are you better now? Try to lie down and get some more sleep."

But I was eager to know what news Uncle Loveday had to tell, so I sat up and questioned him. There was little enough; though, delivered with much pomp, it took some time in telling. Roughly, it came to this:—

A body had been discovered—the body of a small infant—washed up on the Polkimbra Beach. This would give an opportunity for an inquest; and, in fact, the coroner was to arrive that afternoon from Penzance with an interpreter for the evidence of the strange sailor, who, it seemed, was a Greek. Little enough had been got from him, but he seemed to imply that the vessel had struck upon Dead Man's Rock from the south-west, breaking her back upon its sunken base, and then slipping out and subsiding in the deep water. It must have happened at high tide, for much coffee and basket-work was found upon high-water line. This fixed the time of the disaster at about 4 a.m., and my mother's eyes met mine, as we both remembered that it was about that hour when we heard the wild despairing cry. For the rest, it was hopeless to seek information from the Greek sailor without an interpreter; nor were there any clothes or identifying marks on the child's body. The stranger had been clothed and fed at the Vicarage, and would give his evidence that afternoon. Hitherto, the name of the vessel was unknown.

At this point my mother's eyes again sought mine, and I feared fresh inquiries about the Mary Jane; but, luckily, Uncle Loveday had recurred to the question of the Tower of Babel, on which he delivered several profound reflections. Seeing me still disinclined to explain, she merely sighed, and was silent.

But when Uncle Loveday had broken his fast and, rising, announced that he must drive down to be present at the inquest, to our amazement, mother insisted upon going with him. Having no suspicion of her deadly fear, he laughed a little at first, and quoted Solomon on the infirmities of women to an extent that made me wonder what Aunt Loveday would have said had he dared broach such a subject to that strong-minded woman. Seeing, however, that my mother was set upon going, he desisted at last, and put his cart at her service. Somewhat to her astonishment, as I could see, I asked to be allowed to go also, and, after some entreaty, prevailed. So we all set out behind Uncle Loveday's over-fed pony for Polkimbra.

There was a small crowd around the door of the "Lugger Inn" when we drove up. It appeared that the coroner had just arrived, and the inquest was to begin at once. Meanwhile, the folk were busy with conjecture. They made way, however, for my uncle, who, being on such occasions a person of no little importance, easily gained us entry into the Red Room where the inquiry was about to be held. As we stepped along the passage, the landlord's parrot, looking more than ever like Aunt Elizabeth, almost frightened me out of my wits by crying, "All hands lost! All hands lost! Lord ha' mercy on us!" Its hoarse note still sounded in my ears, when the door opened, and we stood in presence of the "crowner's quest."

I suppose the Red Room of the "Lugger" was full; and, indeed, as the smallest inquest involves at least twelve men and a coroner, to say nothing of witnesses, it must have been very full. But for me, as soon as my foot crossed the threshold, there was only one face, only one pair of eyes, only one terrible presence, to be conscious of and fear. I saw him at once, and he saw me; but, unless it were that his cruel eye glinted and his lips grew for the moment white and fixed, he betrayed no consciousness of my presence there.

The coroner was speaking as we entered, but his voice sounded as though far away and faint. Uncle Loveday gave evidence, and I have a dim recollection of two rows of gleaming buttons, but nothing more. Then Jonathan, the coast-guardsman, was called. He had seen, or fancied he saw, a ship in distress near Gue Graze; had noticed no light nor heard any signal of distress; had given information at Lizard Town. The rocket apparatus had been got out, and searchers had scoured the cliffs as far as Porth Pyg, but nothing was to be seen. The search-party were returning, when they found a shipwrecked sailor in company with a small boy, one Jasper Trenoweth, in Ready-Money Cove.

At the sound of my own name I started, and for the second time since our entry felt the eyes of the stranger question me. At the same time I felt my mother's clasp of my hand tighten, and knew that she saw that look.

The air grew closer and the walls seemed to draw nearer as Jonathan's voice continued its drowsy tale. The afternoon sun poured in at the window until it made the little wainscoted parlour like an oven, but still for me it only lit up one pair of eyes. The voices sounded more and more like those of a dream; the scratching of pens and shuffling of feet were, to my ears, as distant murmurs of the sea, until the coroner's voice called—"Georgio Rhodojani."

Instantly I was wide awake, with every nerve on the stretch. Again I felt his eyes question me, again my mother's hand tightened upon mine, as the stranger stood up and in softest, most musical tones gave his evidence. And the evidence of Georgio Rhodojani, Greek sailor, as translated by Jacopo Rousapoulos, interpreter, of Penzance, was this:—

"My name is Georgio Rhodojani. I am a Greek by birth, and have been a sailor all my life. I was seaman on board the ship which was wrecked last night on your horrible coast. The ship belonged to Bristol, and was homeward bound, but I know neither her name nor the name of her captain."

At this strange opening, amazement fell upon all. For myself, the wild incongruity of this foreign tongue from lips which I had heard utter such fluent and flute-like English swallowed up all other wonder.

After a pause, seeing the marvelling looks of his audience, the witness quietly explained—

"You wonder at this; but I am Greek, and cannot master your hard names. I joined the ship at Colombo as the captain was short of hands. I was wrecked in a Dutch vessel belonging to Dordrecht, off Java, and worked my passage to Ceylon, seeking employment. It is not, therefore, extraordinary that I am so ignorant, and my mouth cannot pronounce your English language, but show me your list of ships and I will point her out to you."

There was a rustling of papers, and a list of East Indiamen was handed up to him: he hastily ran his finger over the pages. Suddenly his face lighted up.

"Ah! this is she!—this is the ship that was wrecked last night!"

The coroner took the paper and slowly read out—"The James and Elizabeth, of Bristol. Captain—Antonius Merrydew."

"Ah, yes, that is she. The babe here was the captain's child, born on the voyage. There were eighteen men on board, an English boy, and the captain's wife. The child was born off the African coast. We sailed from Colombo on the 22nd of July last, with a cargo of coffee and sugar. Two days ago we were off a big harbour, of which I do not know the name; but early yesterday morning were abreast of what you call, I think, the Lizard. The wind was S.W., and took us into your terrible bay. All yesterday we were tacking to get out. Towards evening it blew a gale. The captain had been ill ever since we passed the Bay of Biscay. We hoisted no signal, and knew not what to do, for the captain was sick, and the mate drunk. The mate began to cry when we struck. I alone got on to the jib-boom and jumped. What became of the others I know not, but I jumped on to the rock by which you found me this morning. The vessel broke up in a very short time. I heard the men crying bitterly, but the mate's voice was louder than any. The captain of course was below, and so, when last I saw them, were his wife and child, but she might have rushed upon deck. I was almost sucked back twice, but managed to scramble up. It was not until daylight that I knew I was on the mainland, and climbed down to the sands."

As this strange history proceeded, I know not who in that little audience was most affected. The jury, fascinated by the sweet voice of the speaker, as well as the mystery about the vessel and its unwitnessed disappearance, leant forward in their seats with strained and breathless attention. My mother could not take her eyes off the stranger's face. As he hesitated over the name of the ship, her very lips grew white in agonised suspense, but when the coroner read "the James and Elizabeth," she sank back in her seat with a low "Thank God!" that told me what she had dreaded, and how terribly. I myself knew not what to think, nor if my ears had heard aright. Part of the tale I knew to be a lie; but how much? And what of the Mary Jane? I looked round about. A hush had succeeded the closing words of Rhodojani. Even the coroner was puzzled for a moment; but improbable as the evidence might seem, there was none to gainsay it. I alone, had they but known it, could give this demon the lie—I, an unnoticed child.

The coroner put a question or two and then summed up. Again the old drowsy insensibility fell upon me. I heard the jury return the usual verdict of "Accidental Death," and, as my mother led me from the room, the voice of Joe Roscorla (who had been on the jury) saying, "Durn all foreigners! I don't hold by none of 'em." As the door slammed behind us, shutting out at last those piercing eyes, a shrill screech from the landlord's parrot echoed through the house—

"All hands lost! Lord ha' mercy on us!"

Back | Next | Contents