Dead Man's Rock by Arthur Quiller-Couch

BOOK I
THE QUEST OF THE GREAT RUBY

CHAPTER VI
TELLS HOW A FACE LOOKED IN AT THE WINDOW OF LANTRIG;
AND IN WHAT MANNER MY FATHER CAME HOME TO US


My mother and I walked homeward together by way of the cliffs. We were both silent. My heart ached to tell the whole story, and prove that my tale of the Mary Jane was no wanton lie; but fear restrained me. My mother was busy with her own thoughts. She had seen, I knew, the glance of intelligence which the stranger gave me; she guessed that his story was a lie and that I knew it. What she could not guess was the horror that held my tongue fastened as with a padlock. So, both busy with bitter thoughts, we walked in silence to Lantrig.

The evening meal was no better. My food choked me, and after a struggle I was forced to let it lie almost untouched. But when the fire was stirred, the candles lit, and I drew my footstool as usual to her feet by the hearth, the old room looked so warm and cosy that my pale fears began to vanish in its genial glow. I had possessed myself of the "Pilgrim's Progress," and the volume, a dumpy octavo, lay on my knee. As I read the story of Christian and Apollyon to its end, a new courage fought in me with my morning fears.

"In this combat no man can imagine, unless he has seen and heard as I did, what yelling and hideous roaring Apollyon made all the time of the fight: he spake like a dragon; and, on the other side, what sighs and groans burst from Christian's heart. I never saw him all the while give so much as one pleasant look, till he perceived that he had wounded Apollyon with his two-edged sword; then indeed he did smile and look upward! but it was the dreadfullest sight that ever I saw."

I glanced up at my mother, half resolved. She was leaning forward a little and gazing into the fire, that lit up her pale face and wonderful eyes with a sympathetic softness. I can remember now how sweet she looked and how weary—that tender figure outlined in warm glow against the stern, dark room. And all the time her heart was slowly breaking with yearning for him that came not. I did not know it then; but when does childhood know or understand the suffering of later life? I looked down upon the page once more, turned back a leaf or two, and read:

"Then did Christian begin to be afraid, and to cast in his mind whether to go back or stand his ground. But he considered again that he had no armour for his back, and therefore thought that to turn his back to him might give him greater advantage, with ease to pierce him with his darts; therefore he resolved to venture and stand his ground."

"I come on them in bed sometimes, and sometimes from behind." The words of my Apollyon came across my mind. Should I speak and seek counsel?—What was that?

It was a tear that fell upon my hand as it lay across my mother's lap. Since the day when father left us I had never seen her weep. Was it for my deceit? I looked up again and saw that her eyes were brimming with sorrow. My fears and doubts were forgotten. I would speak and tell her all my tale.

"Mother."

Somewhat ashamed at being discovered, she dried her eyes and tried to smile—a poor pitiful smile, with the veriest ghost of joy in it.

"Yes, Jasper."

"Is Apollyon still alive?"

"He stands for the powers of evil, Jasper, and they are always alive."

"But, I mean, does he walk about the world like a man? Is he really alive?"

"Why, no, Jasper. What nonsense has got into your head now?"

"Because, mother, I met him to-day. That is, he said he was Apollyon, and that he would come and carry me off if—"

Half apprehensive at my boldness, I cast an anxious look around as I spoke. Nothing met my eyes but the familiar furniture and the dancing shadows on the wall, until their gaze fell upon the window, and rested there, whilst my heart grew suddenly stiff with terror, and my tongue clave to my mouth.

As my voice broke off suddenly, mother glanced at me in expectation. Seeing my fixed stare and dropped jaw, she too looked at the window, then started to her feet with a shriek.

For there, looking in upon us with a wicked smile, was the white face of the sailor Rhodojani.

For a second or two, petrified with horror, we stood staring at it. The evil smile flickered for a moment, baring the white teeth and lighting the depths of those wolfish eyes; then, with a fiendish laugh, vanished in the darkness.

He had, then, told the truth when he promised to haunt me. Beyond the shock of mortal terror, I was but little amazed. It seemed but natural that he should come as he had threatened. Only I was filled with awful expectation of his vengeance, and stood aghast at the consequences of my rashness. By instinct I turned to my mother for protection.

But what ailed her? She had fallen back in her chair and was still staring with parted lips at the dark pane that a minute ago had framed the horrid countenance. When at last she spoke, her words were wild and meaningless, with a dreadful mockery of laughter that sent a swift pang of apprehension to my heart.

"Mother, it is gone. What is the matter?"

Again a few meaningless syllables and that awful laugh.

And so throughout that second awful night did she mutter and laugh, whilst I, helpless and terror-stricken, strove to soothe her and recall her to speech and sense. The slow hours dragged by, and still I knelt before her waiting for the light. The slow clock sounded the hours, and still she gave no sign of understanding. The mice crept out of their accustomed holes and jumped back startled at her laugh. The fire died low and the candles died out; the wind moaned outside, the tamarisk branches swished against the pane; the hush of night, with its intervals of mysterious sound, held the house; but all the time she never ceased to gaze upon the window, and every now and then to mutter words that were no echo of her mind or voice. Daylight, with its premonitory chill, crept upon us at last, but oh, how slowly! Daylight looked in and found us as that cruel sight had left us, helpless and alone.

But with daylight came some courage. Had there been neighbours near Lantrig I should have run to summon them before, but Polkimbra was the nearest habitation, and Polkimbra was almost two miles off, across a road possessed by horrors and perhaps tenanted by that devilish face. And how could I leave my mother alone? But now that day had come I would run to Lizard Town and see Uncle Loveday. I slipped on my boots, unbolted the door, cast a last look at my mother still sitting helpless and vacant of soul, and rushed from the house. The sound of her laughter rang in my ears as the door closed behind me.

Weak, haggard and wild of aspect, I ran and stumbled along the cliffs. Dead Man's Rock lay below wrapped in a curtain of mist. Thick clouds were rolling up from seaward; the grey light of returning day made sea, sky and land seem colourless and wan. But for me there was no sight but Polkimbra ahead. As I gained the little village I ran down the hill to the "Lugger" and knocked upon the door. Heavens! how long it was before I was answered. At last the landlady's head appeared at an upper window. With a few words to Mrs. Busvargus, which caused that worthy soul to dress in haste with many ejaculations, I raced up the hill again and across the downs for Lizard Town. My strength was giving way; my head swam, my sides ached terribly, my legs almost refused to obey my will, and a thousand lights danced and sparkled before my eyes, but still I kept on, now staggering, now stumbling, but still onward, nor stopped until I stood before Uncle Loveday's door.

There at last I fell; but luckily against the door, so that in a moment or two I became conscious of Aunt Elizabeth standing over me and regarding me as a culprit caught red-handed in some atrocious crime.

"Hoity-toity! What's the matter now? Why, it's Jasper! Well, of all the freaks, to come knocking us up! What's the matter with the boy? Jasper, what ails you?"

Incoherently I told my story, at first to Aunt Elizabeth alone, but presently, in answer to her call, Uncle Loveday came down to hear. The pair stood silent and wondering.

They were not elaborately dressed. Aunt Elizabeth, it is true, was smothered from head to foot in a gigantic Inverness cape, that might have been my uncle's were it not obviously too large for that little man. Her nightcap, on the other hand, was ostentatiously her own. No other woman would have had strength of mind to wear such a head-dress. Uncle Loveday's costume was even more singular; for the first time I saw him without a single brass button, and for the first time I understood how much he owed to those decorations. His first words were—

"Jasper, I hope you are telling me the truth. Your mother told me yesterday of some cock-and-bull story concerning the Anna Maria or some such vessel. I hope this is not another such case. I have told you often enough where little boys who tell falsehoods go to."

My white face must have been voucher for my truth on this occasion; for Aunt Elizabeth cut him short with the single word "Breakfast," and haled me into the little parlour whilst the pair went to dress.

As I waited, I heard the sound of the pony without, and presently Aunt Elizabeth returned in her ordinary costume to worry the small servant who laid breakfast. Whether Uncle Loveday ever had that meal I do not know to this day, for whilst it was being prepared I saw him get into the little carriage and drive off towards Lantrig. I was told that I could not go until I had eaten; and so with a sore heart, but no thought of disobedience, I turned to breakfast.

The meal had scarcely begun when the door opened and Master Thomas Loveday sauntered into the room. Master Thomas Loveday, a youth of some eight summers, was, in default of a home of his own, quartered permanently upon my uncle, whose brother's son he was. His early days had been spent in India. After, however, both father and mother had succumbed to the climate of Madras, he was sent home to England, and had taken root in Lizard Town. Hitherto, his life had been one long lazy slumber. Whenever we were sent, on his rare visits to Lantrig, to "play together," as old age always rudely puts it, his invariable rule had been to go to sleep on the first convenient spot. Consequently his presence embarrassed me not a little. He was a handsome boy, with blue eyes, long lashes, fair hair, and a gentle habit of speech. When I came to know him better, I learnt the quick wit and subtle power that lay beneath his laziness of manner; but at present the soul of Thomas Loveday slept.

He was certainly not wide awake when he entered the room. With a sleepy nod at me, and no trace of surprise at my presence, he pursued his meal. Occasionally, as Aunt Elizabeth put a fresh question, he would regard her with a long stare, but otherwise gave no sign of animation. This finally so exasperated my aunt that she addressed him—

"Thomas, do not stare."

Thomas looked mildly surprised for a moment, and then inquired, "Why not?"

"Does the boy think I'm a wild Indian?" The question was addressed to me, but I could not say, so kept a discreet silence. Thomas relieved me from my difficulty by answering, "No," thoughtfully.

"Then why stare so? I'm sure I don't know what boys are made of, nowadays."

"Slugs and snails and puppy-dogs' tails," was the dreamy answer.

"Thomas, how dare you? I should like to catch the person who taught you such nonsense. I'd teach him!"

"It was Uncle Loveday," remarked the innocent Thomas.

There was an awful pause; which I broke at length by asking to be allowed to go. Aunt Elizabeth saw her way to getting rid of the offender.

"Thomas, you might walk with Jasper over the downs to Lantrig. It will be nice exercise for you."

"It may be exercise, aunt, but—"

"Do not answer me, but go. Where do you expect little boys will go to, who are always idle?"

"Sleep?" hazarded Thomas.

"Thomas, you shall learn the whole of Dr. Watts's poem on the sluggard before you go to bed this night."

At this the boy slowly rose, took his cap, stood before her, and solemnly repeated the whole of that melancholy tale, finishing the last line at the door and gravely bowing himself out. I followed, awestruck, and we set out in silence.

At first, anxiety for my mother possessed all my thoughts, but presently I ventured to congratulate Tom on his performance.

"She has read it to me so often," replied he, "that I can't help knowing it. I hate Dr. Watts, and I love to go to sleep. I dream such jolly things. Sleep is ever so much nicer than being awake, isn't it?"

I wanted sleep, having had but little for two nights, and could therefore agree with him.

"You get such jolly adventures when you dream," said Tom, reflectively.

I had been rather surfeited with adventures lately, so held my peace.

"Now, real life is so dull. If one could only meet with adventures—"

I caught the sound of wheels behind us, and turned round. We had struck off the downs on to the high road. A light gig with one occupant was approaching us. As it drew near the driver hailed us.

"Hullo! lads, is this the road for Polkimbra?"

The speaker was a short, grizzled, seafaring man, with a kind face and good-humoured mouth. He drove execrably, and pulled his quiet mare right back upon her haunches.

I answered that it was.

"Are you bound for there? Yes? Jump up then. I'll give you a lift."

I looked at Tom; he, of course, was ready for anything that would save trouble, so we clambered up beside the stranger.

"There was a wreck there yesterday, I've heard," said he, after we had gone a few yards, "and an inquest, and, by the tale I heard, a lot of lies told."

I started. The man did not notice it, but continued—

"Maybe you've heard of it. Well, it's a rum world, and a fine lot of lies gets told every day, but you don't often get so accomplished a liar as that chap—what's his name? Blessed if I can tackle it; not but what it's another lie, I'll wager."

I was listening intently. He continued more to himself than to us—

"An amazing liar, though I wonder what his game was. It beats me; beats me altogether. The 'James and Elizabeth,' says he, as large as life. I take it the fellow couldn't 'a been fooling who brought the news to Falmouth. Didn't know me from Adam, and was fairly put about when he saw how I took it, and, says he, ''twas the James and Elizabeth the chap said, as sure as I stand here.' Boy, do you happen to know the name of the vessel that ran ashore here, night afore last?"

I had grown accustomed to being asked this dreadful question, and therefore answered as bravely as I could. "The James and Elizabeth, sir."

"Captain's name?"

"Captain Antonius Merrydew."

"Ah, poor chap! He was lying sick below when she struck, wasn't he? And he had a wife aboard, and a child born at sea, hadn't he? Fell sick in the Bay o' Biscay, like any land-lubber, didn't he? Why, 'tis like play-actin'; damme! 'tis better than that."

With this the man burst into a shout of laughter and slapped his thigh until his face grew purple with merriment.

"What d'ye think of it, boy, for a rare farce? Was ever the likes of it heard? Captain Antonius Merrydew sick in the Bay o' Biscay! Ho, ho! Where's play-actin' beside it?"

"Wasn't it true, sir?"

"True? God bless the boy! Look me in the face: look me in the face, and then ask me if it's true."

"But why should it not be true, sir?"

"Because I am Captain Antonius Merrydew!"

For the rest of the journey I sat stunned. Thomas beside me was wide awake and staring, seeing his way to an adventure at last. It was I that dreamed—I heard without comprehension the rest of the captain's tale:—how he had come, after a quick passage from Ceylon, to Falmouth with the barque James and Elizabeth, just in time to hear of this monstrous lie; how he was unmarried, and never had a day's illness in his life; how, suspecting foul play, he had hired a horse and gig with a determination to drive over to Polkimbra and learn the truth; how a horse and gig were the most cursedly obstinate of created things; with much besides in the way of oaths and ejaculations. All this I must have heard, for memory brought them back later; but I did not listen. My life and circumstances had got the upper hand of me, and were dancing a devil's riot.

At last, after much tacking and porting of helm, we navigated Polkimbra Hill and cast anchor before the "Lugger." There we alighted, thanked the captain, and left him piping all hands to the horse's head. His cheery voice followed us down to the sands.

We had determined to cut across Polkimbra Beach and climb up to Lantrig by Ready-Money Cliffs, as in order to go along the path above the cliffs we should have to ascend Polkimbra Hill again. The beach was so full of horror to me that without a companion I could not have crossed it; but Tom's presence lent me courage. Tom was nearer to excitement than I had ever seen him; he grew voluble; praised the captain, admired his talk, and declared adventure to be abroad in the air—in fact, threw up his head as though he scented it.

Yes, adventure was in the air. It was not exactly to my taste, however, nor did the thought of my poor mother at home make me more sympathetic with Tom's ecstasy; so whilst he chattered I strode gloomily forward over the beach.

The day was drawing towards noon. October was revelling in an after-taste of summer, and smiled in broad glory over beach and sea. A light breeze bore eastward a few fleecy clouds, and the waves danced and murmured before its breath. Their salt scent was in our nostrils, and the glitter of the sand in our eyes. Black and sombre in the clear air, Dead Man's Rock rose in gloomy isolation from the sea, while the sea-birds swept in glistening circles round its summit. But what was that at its base?

Seemingly, a little knot of men stood at the water's edge. As we drew nearer I could distinguish their forms but not their occupation, for they stood in a circle, intent on some object in their midst concealed from our view. Presently, however, they fell into a rough line as though making for the archway to Ready-Money Cove. Something they carried among them, and continually stooped over; but what it was I could not see. Their pace was very slow, but they turned into the arch and were disappearing, when I caught sight of the uncouth little figure of Joe Roscorla among the last, and ran forward, hailing him by name.

At the sound of my voice Joe started, turned round and made a slow pause; then, with a few words to his neighbour, came quickly towards me. As he drew near, I saw that his face was white and his manner full of embarrassment; but he put on a smile, and spoke first—

"Why, Jasper, what be doin' along here?"

"I'm going home. Has Uncle Loveday seen mother? And is she better?"

"Aw iss, he've a seen her an' she be quieter: leastways, he be bound to do her a power o' good. But what be goin' back for? 'Tain't no use botherin' indoors wi' your mother in thicky wisht state. Run about an' get some play."

"What were you doing down by the Rock just now, Joe?"

Joe hesitated for a while; stammered, and then said, "Nuthin."

"But, Joe, you were doing something: what were you carrying over to Ready-Money?"

"Look-ee here, my lad, run an' play, an' doan't ax no questions. 'Tain't for little boys to ax questions. Now I comes to think of it, Doctor said as you was to stay over to Lizard Town, 'cos there ain't no need of a passel of boys in a sick house: so run along back."

Joe's voice had a curious break in it, and his whole bearing was so unaccountable that I did not wonder when Tom quietly said—

"Joe, you're telling lies."

Now Joe was, in an ordinary way, the soul of truth: so I looked for an explosion. To my surprise, however, he took no notice of the insult, but turned again to me—

"Jasper, lad, run along back: do'ee now."

His voice was so full of entreaty that a sudden suspicion took hold of me.

"Joe, is—has anything happened to mother?"

"Noa, to be sure: she'll be gettin' well fast enough, if so be as you let her be."

"Then I'll go and see Uncle Loveday, and find out if I am really to go back."

I made a motion to go, but he caught me quickly by the arm.

"Now, Jasper, doan't-'ee go: run back, I tell'ee—run back—I tell'ee you must go back."

His words were so earnest and full of command that I turned round and faced him. Something in his eyes filled me with sickening fear.

"Joe, what were you carrying?"

No answer.

"Joe, what were you carrying?"

Still no answer; but an appealing motion of the hand.

"Joe, what was it?"

"Go back!" he said, hoarsely. "Go back!"

"I will not, until I have seen what you were carrying."

"Go back, boy: for God's sake go back!"

I wrenched myself from his grasp, and ran with all speed. Joe and Tom followed me, but fear gave me fleetness. Behind I could hear Joe's panting voice, crying, "Come back!" but the agony in his tone set me running faster. I flew through the archway, and saw the small procession half-way across the cove. At my shout they halted, paused, and one or two advanced as if to stop me. But I dashed through their hands into their midst, and saw—God in heaven! What? The drowned face of my father!

Tenderly as women they lifted me from the body. Gently and with tear-stained faces, they stood around and tried to comfort me. Reverently, while Joe Roscorla held me in his arms behind, they took up the corpse of him they had known and loved so well, and carried it up the cliffs to Lantrig. As they lifted the latch and bore the body across the threshold, a yell of maniac laughter echoed through the house to the very roof.

And this was my father's "Welcome Home!"

Nay, not all; for as Uncle Loveday started to his feet, the door behind him flew open, and my mother, all in white, with very madness in her eyes, rushed to the corpse, knelt, caught the dead hand, kissed and fondled the dead face, cooing and softly laughing the while with a tender rapture that would have moved hell itself to pity.

In this manner it was that these two fond lovers met.



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