Dead Man's Rock by Arthur Quiller-Couch

BOOK I
THE QUEST OF THE GREAT RUBY

CHAPTER VII
TELLS HOW UNCLE LOVEDAY MADE A DISCOVERY;
AND WHAT THE TIN BOX CONTAINED


An hour afterwards I was sitting at the bedside of my dying mother. The shock of that terrible meeting had brought her understanding—and death: for as her mind returned her life ebbed away. White and placid she lay upon her last bed, and spoke no word; but in her eyes could be read her death-warrant, and by me that which was yet more full of anguish, a tender but unfading reproach. This world is full of misunderstandings, but seldom is met one so desperate. How could I tell her now? And how could she ever understand? It was all too late. "Too late! too late!" the words haunted me there as the bright sun struggled through the drawn blind and illumined her saintly face. They and the look in her sweet eyes have haunted me many a day since then, and would be with me yet, did I not believe she knows the truth at last. There are too many ghosts in my memories for Heaven to lightly add this one more.

She was dying—slowly and peacefully dying, and this was the end of her waiting. He had returned at last, this husband for whose coming she had watched so long. He had returned at last, after all his labour, and had been laid at her feet a dead man. She was free to go and join her love. To me, child as I was, this was sorely cruel. Death, as I know now, is very merciful even when he seems most merciless, but as I sat and watched the dear life slowly drift away from me, it was a hard matter to understand.

The pale sunlight came, and flickered, and went; but she lay to all seeming unchanged. Her pulse's beat was failing—failing; the broken heart feebly struggling to its rest; but her sad eyes were still the same, appealing, questioning, rebuking—all without hope of answer or explanation. So were they when the sobbing fishermen lifted her from the body, so would they be until closed for the last sleep. It was very cruel.

My father's body lay in the room below, with Uncle Loveday and Mrs. Busvargus for watchers. Now and again my uncle would steal softly upstairs, and as softly return with hopelessness upon his face. The clock downstairs gave the only sound I heard, as it marked the footsteps of the dark angel coming nearer and nearer. Twice my mother's lips parted as if to speak; but though I bent down to catch her words, I could hear no sound.

So, as I sat and watched her waxen face, all the sweet memories of her came back in a sad, reproachful train. Once more we sat together by the widowed hearth, reading: once more we stood upon the rocky edge of Pedn-glas and looked into the splendours of the summer sunset "for father's ship:" once more we knelt together in Polkimbra Church, and prayed for his safe return: once more I heard that sweet, low voice—once more? Ah, never, never more!

Uncle Loveday stole into the room on tip-toe, and looked at her; then turned and asked—

"Has she spoken yet?"

"No."

He was about to leave when the lips parted again, and this time she spoke—

"He is coming, coming. Hush! that is his step!"

The dark eyes were ablaze with expectation: the pale cheek aglow with hope. I bent down over the bed, for her voice was very low.

"He is coming, I know it. Listen! Oh, husband, come quicker, quicker!"

Alas! poor saint, the step you listen for has gone before, and is already at the gate of heaven.

"He is here! Oh, husband, husband, you have come for me!"

A moment she sat up with arms outstretched, and glory in her face; then fell back, and the arms that caught her were the arms of God.

After the first pang of bereavement had spent itself, Uncle Loveday got me to bed, and there at last I slept. The very bewilderment of so much sorrow enforced sleep, and sleep was needed: so that, worn out with watching and excitement, I had not so much as a dream to trouble me. It was ten o'clock in the morning when I awoke, and saw my uncle sitting beside the bed. Another sun was bright in the heavens outside: the whole world looked so calm and happy that my first impulse was to leap up and run, as was my custom, to mother's room. Then my eyes fell on Uncle Loveday, and the whole dreadful truth came surging into my awakened brain. I sank back with a low moan upon the pillow.

Uncle Loveday, who had been watching me, stepped to the bed and took my hand.

"Jasper, boy, are you better?"

After a short struggle with my grief, I plucked up heart to answer that I was.

"That's a brave boy. I asked, because I have yet to tell you something. I am a doctor, you know, Jasper, and so you may take my word when I say there is no good in what is called 'breaking news.' It is always best to have the pain over and done with; at least, that's my experience. Now, my dear boy, though God knows you have sorrow enough, there is still something to tell: and if you are the boy I take you for, it is best to let you know at once."

Dimly wondering what new blow fortune could deal me, I sat up in bed and looked at my uncle helplessly.

"Jasper, you think—do you not—that your father was drowned?"

"Of course, uncle."

"He was not drowned."

"Not drowned!"

"No, Jasper, he was murdered."

The words came slowly and solemnly, and even with the first shock of surprise the whole truth dawned upon me. This, then, explained the effect my name had wrought upon those two strange men. This was the reason why, as we sat together upon Dead Man's Rock, the eyes of John Railton had refused to meet mine: this was the reason why his murderer had gripped me so viciously upon Ready-Money Beach. These few words of my uncle's began slowly to piece together the scattered puzzle of the last two days, so that I half guessed the answer as I asked—

"Murdered! How?"

"He was stabbed to death."

I knew it, for I remembered the empty sheath that hung at Rhodojani's waist, and heard again Railton's words, "Captain, it was your knife." As certainly as if I had fitted the weapon to its case, I knew that man had prompted father's murder. Even as I knew it my terror of him faded away, and a blind and helpless hate sprang up in its stead: helpless now, but some day to be masterful and worthy of heed. That the man who called himself Georgio Rhodojani was guilty of one death, I knew from the witness of my own eyes: that he had two more lives upon his black account—for the hand that struck my father had also slain my mother—I knew as surely.

"And the devil has got his due, my lads!"

No, not yet: there was still one priceless soul for him to wait for.

"He was stabbed," repeated Uncle Loveday, "stabbed to the heart, and from behind. I found this blade as I examined your poor father's body. It was broken off close to the hilt, and left in the wound, which can hardly have bled at all. Death must have been immediate. It's a strange business, Jasper, and a strange blade by the look of it."

I took the blade from his hand. It was about four inches in length, sharp, and curiously worked: one side was quite plain, but the other was covered with intricate tracery, and down the centre, bordered with delicate fruit and flowers, I spelt out the legend "Ricordati."

"What does that word mean?" I asked, as I handed back the steel. My voice was so calm and steady that Uncle Loveday glanced at me for a moment in amazement before he answered—

"It's not Latin, Jasper, but it's like Latin, and I should think must mean 'Remember,' or something of the sort."

"'Remember,'" I repeated. "I will, uncle. As surely as father was murdered, I will remember—when the time comes."

They were strange words from a boy. My uncle looked at me again, but doubtless thinking my brain turned with grief, said nothing.

"Have you told anybody?" I asked at length.

"I have seen nobody. There will be an inquest, of course, but in this case an inquest can do nothing. Murderer and murdered have both gone to their account. By the way, I suppose nothing has been seen of the man who gave evidence. It was an unlikely tale; and this makes it the more suspicious. Bless my soul!" said my uncle, suddenly, "to think it never struck me before! Your father was to sail in the Belle Fortune, and this man gave the name of the ship as the James and Elizabeth."

"It was the Belle Fortune, and the man told a falsehood."

"I suppose it must have been."

"I know it was."

"Know? How do you know?"

"Because the James and Elizabeth is lying at this moment in Falmouth Harbour, and her captain is down at the 'Lugger.'"

Thereupon I told how I had met with Captain Antonius Merrydew. Nay, more, for my heart ached for confidence, I recounted the whole story of my meeting with John Railton, and the struggle upon Dead Man's Rock. Every word I told, down to the dead man's legacy—the packet and letter which I hid in the cow-house. As the tale proceeded my uncle's eyes grew wider and wider with astonishment. But I held on calmly and resolutely to the end, nor after the first shock of wonderment did he doubt my sanity or truthfulness, but grew more and more gravely interested.

When I had finished my narrative there was a long silence. Finally Uncle Loveday spoke—

"It's a remarkable story—a very remarkable story," he said, slowly and thoughtfully. "In all my life I have never heard so strange a tale. But the man must be caught. He cannot have gone far, if, as you say, he was here at Lantrig only the night before last. I expect they are on the look-out for him down at Polkimbra since they have heard the captain's statement; but all the same I will send off Joe Roscorla, who is below, to make sure. I must have a pipe, Jasper, to think this over. As a general rule I am not a smoker: your aunt does not—ahem!—exactly like the smell. But it collects the thoughts, and this wants thinking over. Meanwhile, you might dress if you feel well enough. Run to the shed and get the packet; we will read it over together when I have finished my pipe. It is a remarkable story," he repeated, as he slowly opened the door, "a most marvellous story. I must have a pipe. A most—remarkable—tale."

With this he went downstairs and left me to dress.

I did so, and ran downstairs to the cow-shed. No one had been there. With eager fingers I tore away the bricks from the crumbling mortar, and drew out my prize. The buckle glittered in the light that stole through the gaping door. All was safe, and as I left it.

Clutching my treasure, I ran back to the house and found Mrs. Busvargus spreading the midday meal. Until that was over, I knew that Uncle Loveday would not attack the mystery. He was sitting outside in the front garden smoking solemnly, and the wreaths of his pipe, curling in through the open door, filled the house with fragrance.

I crept upstairs to my mother's door, and reverently entered the dim-lit room. They had laid the two dead lovers side by side upon the bed. Very peacefully they slept the sleep that was their meeting—peacefully as though no wickedness had marred their lives or wrought their death. I could look upon them calmly now. My father had left his heritage—a heritage far different from that which he went forth to win; but I accepted it nevertheless. Had they known, in heaven, the full extent of that inheritance, would they not, as I kissed their dead lips in token of my acceptance, have given some sign to stay me? Had I known, as I bent over them, to what the oath in my heart would bring me, would I even then have renounced it? I cannot say. The dead lips were silent, and only the dead know what will be.

Uncle Loveday was already at table when I descended. But small was our pretence of eating. Mrs. Busvargus, it is true, had lost no appetite through sorrow; but Mrs. Busvargus was accustomed to such scenes, and in her calling treated Death with no more to-do than she would a fresh customer at her husband's inn. Long attendance at death-beds seemed to have given that good woman a perennial youth, and certainly that day she seemed to have lost the years which I had gained. Uncle Loveday made some faint display of heartiness; but it was the most transparent feigning. He covered his defection by pressing huge helpings upon me, so that my plate was bidding fair to become a new Tower of Babel, when Mrs. Busvargus interposed and swept the meal away; after which she disappeared into the back kitchen to "wash up," and was no more seen; but we heard loud splashings at intervals as if she had found a fountain, and were renewing her youth in it.

Left to ourselves, we sat silent for a while, during which Uncle Loveday refilled and lit his pipe and plunged again into thought, with his eyes fixed on the rafters. Whether because his cogitations led to something, or the tobacco had soothed him sufficiently, he finally turned to me and asked—

"Have you got that packet?"

I produced it. He took his big red handkerchief from his pocket, spread it on the table, and began slowly to undo the strap. Then after arranging apart the buckle, the letter, and the tin box, he inquired—

"Was it like this when the man gave it to you?"

"No, the letter was separate. I slipped it under the strap to keep it safe."

"It seems to me," said my uncle, adjusting his spectacles and unfolding the paper, "illegible, or almost so. It has evidently been thoroughly soaked with salt water. Come here and see if your young eyes can help me to decipher it."

We bent together over the blurred handwriting. The letter was evidently in a feminine hand; but the characters were rudely and inartistically formed, while every here and there a heavy down-stroke or flourish marred the beauty of the page. Wherever such thick lines occurred the ink had run and formed an illegible smear. Such as it was, with great difficulty, and after frequent trials, we spelt out the letter as follows:—

"The Welc … Home, Barbican, Plymo."
"My Deerest Jack,—This to hope it will find You quite well, as it leaves Me at present. Also to say that I hope this voyage … new Leaf with Simon as Companny, who is a Good Friend, though, as you well know, I did not think … came courting me. But it is for the best, and … liquor … which I pray to Heaven may begin happier Days. Trade is very poor, and I do not know … little Jenny, who is getting on Famously with her Schooling. She keaps the Books already, which is a great saving … looks in often and sits in the parlour. He says as you have Done Well to be … Wave, but misdoubts Simon, which I tell him must be wrong, for it was him that advised … the fuss and warned against liquor, which he never took Himself. Jenny is so Fond of her Books, and says she will teech you to write when you come home, which will be a great Comfort, you being away so long and never a word. And I am doing wonders under her teaching, which I dare say she will let you know of it all in the letter she is writing to go along with this … Simon to write for you, who is a … scholar, which is natural … in the office. So that I wonder he left it, having no taste for the sea that ever I heard … be the making of you both. I forgot to tell … very strange when he left, but what with the hurry and bussle it slipped my mind … wonderful to me to think of, my talking to you so natural … distance. And so no more at present from your loving wife," "LUCY RAILTON."

"Jenny says … will not alter, being more like as if it came from me. Munny is very scarce. I wish you could get …"

This was all, and small enough, as I thought, was the light it threw on the problem before us. Uncle Loveday read it over three or four times; then folded up the letter and looked at me over his spectacles.

"You say this cut-throat fellow—this Rhodojani, as he called himself—spoke English?"

"As well as we do. He and the other spoke English all the time."

"H'm! And he talked about a Jenny, did he?"

"He was saying something about 'Jenny not finding a husband' when John Railton struck him."

"Then it's clear as daylight that he's called Simon, and not Georgio. Also if I ever bet (though far be it from me) I would bet my buttons that his name is no more Rhodojani than mine is Methuselah."

He paused for a moment, absorbed in thought; then resumed—

"This Lucy Railton is John Railton's wife and keeps a public-house called the 'Welcome Home!' on the Barbican, Plymouth. Simon, that is to say Rhodojani, was in love with Lucy Railton, and his conduct, says she, was strange before leaving; but he pretended to be John Railton's friend, and, from what you say, must have had an astonishing influence over the unhappy man. Simon, we learn, is a scholar," pursued my uncle, after again consulting the letter, "and I see the word 'office' here, which makes it likely that he was a clerk of some kind, who took to the sea for some purpose of his own, and induced Railton to go with him, perhaps for the same purpose, perhaps for another. Anyhow, it seems it was high time for Railton to go somewhere, for besides the references to liquor, which tally with Simon's words upon Dead Man's Rock, we also meet with the ominous words 'the fuss,' wherein, Jasper, I find the definite article not without meaning."

Uncle Loveday was beaming with conscious pride in his own powers of penetration. He acknowledged my admiring attention with a modest wave of the hand, and then proceeded to clear his throat ostentatiously, as one about to play a trump card.

"As I say, Jasper, this fellow must have had some purpose to drag him off to sea from an office stool—some strong purpose, and, from what we know of the man, some ungodly purpose. Now, the question is, What was it? On the Rock, as you say, he charged John Railton with having a certain Will in his possession. Your father started from England with a Will in his possession. This is curious, to say the least—very curious; but I do not see how we are to connect this with the man Simon's sudden taste for the sea, for, you know, he could not possibly have heard of Amos Trenoweth's Will."

"You and aunt were the only people father told of it."

"Quite so; and your father (excuse me, Jasper) not being a born fool, naturally didn't cry his purpose about the streets of Plymouth when he took his passage. Still, it's curious. Your father sailed from Plymouth and this pair of rascals sailed from Plymouth—not that there's anything in that; hundreds sail out of the Sound every week, and we have nothing to show when Simon and John started—it may have been before your father. But look here, Jasper, what do you make of that?"

I bent over the letter, and where my uncle's finger pointed, read, "He says as you have Done Well to be … Wave."

"Well, uncle?"

"Well, my boy; what do you make of it?"

"I can make nothing of it."

"No? You see that solitary word 'Wave'?"

"Yes."

"What was the ship called in which your father sailed?"

"The Golden Wave."

"That's it, the Golden Wave. Now, what do you make of it?"

My uncle leaned back in his chair and looked at me over his spectacles, with the air of one who has played his trump card and watches for its effect. A certain consciousness of merit and expectancy of approbation animated his person; his reasoning staggered me, and he saw it, nor was wholly displeased. After waiting some time for my reply, he added—

"Of course I may be wrong, but it's curious. I do not think I am wrong, when I mark what it proves. It proves, first, that these two ruffians—for ruffians they both were, as we must conclude, in spite of John Railton's melancholy end—it proves, I say, that these two sailed along with your father. They come home with him, are wrecked, and your father's body is found—murdered. Evidence, slight evidence, but still worthy of attention, points to them. Now, if it could be proved that they knew, at starting or before, of your father's purpose, it would help us; and, to my mind, this letter goes far to prove that wickedness of some sort was the cause of their going. What do you think?"

Uncle Loveday cleared his throat and looked at me again with professional pride in his diagnosis. There was a pause, broken only by Mrs. Busvargus splashing in the back kitchen.

"Good heavens!" said my uncle, "is that woman taking headers? Come, Jasper, what do you think?"

"I think," I replied, "we had better look at the tin box."

"Bless my soul! There's something in the boy, after all. I had clean forgotten it."

The box was about six inches by four, and some four inches in depth. The tin was tarnished by the sea, but the cover had been tightly fastened down and secured with a hasp and pin. Uncle Loveday drew out the pin, and with some difficulty raised the lid. Inside lay a tightly-rolled bundle of papers, seemingly uninjured. These he drew out, smoothed, and carefully opened.

As his eyes met the writing, his hand dropped, and he sank back—a very picture of amazement—in his chair.

"My God!"

"What's the matter?"

"It's your father's handwriting!"

I looked at this last witness cast up by the sea and read, "The Journal of Ezekiel Trenoweth, of Lantrig."



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