Dead Man's Rock by Arthur Quiller-Couch



So my father sailed away, carrying with him—sewn for safety in his jersey's side—the Will and the small clasped Bible; nor can I think of stranger equipment for the hunting of earthly treasure. And the great iron key hung untouched from the beam, while the spiders outvied one another in wreathing it with their webs, knowing it to be the only spot in Lantrig where they were safe from my mother's broom. It is with these spiders that my recollections begin, for of my father, before he sailed away, remembrance is dim and scanty, being confined to the picture of a tall fair man, with huge shoulders and wonderful grey eyes, that changed in a moment from the stern look he must have inherited from Amos to an extraordinary depth of love and sympathy. Also I have some faint memories of a pig, named Eleazar (for no well-explained reason), which fell over the cliff one night and awoke the household with its cries. But this I mention only because it happened, as I learn, before my father's going, and not for any connection with my story. We must have lived a very quiet life at Lantrig, even as lives go on our Western coast. I remember my mother now as she went softly about the house contriving and scheming to make the two ends of our small possessions meet. She was a woman who always walked softly, and, indeed, talked so, with a low musical voice such as I shall never hear again, nor can ever hope to. But I remember her best in church, as she knelt and prayed for her absent husband, and also in the meeting-house, which she sometimes attended, more to please Aunt Elizabeth than for any good it did her. For the religion there was too sombre for her quiet sorrow; and often I have seen a look of awful terror possess her eyes when the young minister gave out the hymn and the fervid congregation wailed forth—

  "In midst of life we are in death.
Oh! stretch Thine arm to save.
  Amid the storm's tumultuous breath
And roaring of the wave."

Which, among a fishing population, was considered a particularly appropriate hymn; and, truly, to hear the unction with which the word "tu-mult-u-ous" was rendered, with all strength of lung and rolling of syllables, was moving enough. But my mother would grow all white and trembling, and clutch my hand sometimes, as though to save herself from shipwreck; whilst I too often would be taken with the passion of the chant, and join lustily in the shouting, only half comprehending her mortal anguish. It was this, perhaps, and many another such scene, which drew upon me her gentle reproof for pointing one day to the text above the pulpit and repeating, "How dreadful is this place!" But that was after I had learned to spell.

It had always been my father's wish that I should grow up "a scholar," which, in those days, meant amongst us one who could read and write with no more than ordinary difficulty. So one of my mother's chief cares was to teach me my letters, which I learnt from big A to "Ampusand" in the old hornbook at Lantrig. I have that hornbook still,

——"Covered with pellucid horn,
To save from fingers wet the letters fair."

The horn, alas! is no longer pellucid, but dim, as if with the tears of the many generations that have struggled through the alphabet and the first ten numerals and reached in due course the haven of the Lord's Prayer and Doxology. I had passed the Doxology, and was already deep in the "Pilgrim's Progress" and the "Holy War" (which latter book, with the rude taste of childhood, I greatly preferred, so that I quickly knew the mottoes and standards of its bewildering hosts by heart), when my father's first letter came home. In those days, before the great canal was cut, a voyage to the East Indies was no light matter, lying as it did around the treacherous Cape and through seas where a ship may lie becalmed for weeks. So it was little wonder that my father's letter, written from Bombay, was some time on its way. Still, when the news came it was good. He had seen Mr. Elihu Sanderson, son of the Elihu mentioned in my grandfather's Will, had presented his parchment and Testament, and received some notes (most of which he sent home), together with a sealed packet, directed in Amos Trenoweth's handwriting: "To the Son of my House, who, having Counted all the Perils, is Resolute." This packet, my father went on to say, contained much mysterious matter, which would keep until he and his dear wife met. He added that, for himself, he could divine no peril, nor any cause for his dear wife to trouble, seeing that he had but to go to the island of Ceylon, whence, having accomplished the commands contained in the packet, he purposed to take ship and return with all speed to England. This was the substance of the letter, wrapped around with many endearing words, and much tender solicitude for Margery and the little one, as that he hoped Jasper was tackling his letters like a real scholar, and comforting his mother's heart, with more to this effect; which made us weep very sorrowfully when the letter was read, although we could not well have told why. As to the sealed packet, my father would have been doubtless more explicit had he been without a certain distrust of letters and letter-carriers, which, amid much faith in the miraculous powers of the Post Office, I have known to exist among us even in these later days.

Than this blessed letter surely no written sheet was ever more read and re-read; read to me every night before prayers were said, read to Aunt Elizabeth and Uncle Loveday, read (in extracts) to all the neighbours of Polkimbra, for none knew certainly why Ezekiel had gone to India except that, somewhat vaguely, it was to "better hisself." How many times my mother read it, and kissed it, and cried over it, God alone knows; I only know that her step, which had been failing of late, grew firmer, and she went about the house with a light in her face like "the face of an angel," as the vicar said. It may have been: I have never since seen its like upon earth.

After this came the great joy of sending an answer, which I wrote (with infinite pains as to the capital letters) at my mother's dictation. And then it was read over and corrected, and added to, and finally directed, as my father had instructed us, to "Mr. Ezekiel Trenoweth; care of John P. Eversleigh, Esq., of the East India Company's Service, Colombo, Ceylon." I remember that my mother sealed it with the red cornelian Ezekiel had given her when he asked her to be his wife, and took it with her own hands to Penzance to post, having, for the occasion, harnessed old Pleasure in the cart for the first time since we had been alone.

Then we had to wait again, and the little store of money grew small indeed. But Aunt Elizabeth was a wonderful contriver, and tender of heart besides, although in most things to be called a "hard" woman. She had married, during my grandfather's long absence, Dr. Loveday, of Lizard Town—a mild little man with a prodigious vanity in brass buttons, and the most terrific religious beliefs, which did not in the least alter his natural sweetness of temper. My aunt and uncle (it was impossible to think of them except in this order) would often drive or walk over to Lantrig, seldom without some little present, which, together with my aunt's cap-box, would emerge from the back seat, amid a duetto something after this fashion:—

My Aunt. "So, my dear, we thought as we were driving in this direction we would see how you were getting on; and by great good fortune, or rather as I should say (Jasper, do not hang your head so; it looks so deceitful) by the will of Heaven (and Heaven's will be done, you know, my dear, which must be a great comfort to you in your sore affliction), as Cyrus was driving into Cadgwith yesterday—were you not, Cyrus?"

My Uncle. "To be sure, my dear."

My Aunt. "Well, as I was saying, as Cyrus was driving into Cadgwith yesterday to see Martha George's husband, who was run over by the Helston coach, and she such a regular attendant at the Prayer-meeting, but in the midst of life (Jasper, don't fidget)—well, whom should he see but Jane Ann Collins, with the finest pair of ducks, too, and costing a mere nothing. Cyrus will bear me out."

My Uncle. "Nothing at all, my dear. Jasper, come here and talk to me. Do you know, Jasper, what happens to little boys that tell lies? You do? Something terrible, eh? Soul's perdition, my boy; soul's ev-er-last-ing perdition. There, come and show me the pig."

What agonies of conscience it must have cost these two good souls thus to conspire together for benevolence, none ever knew. Nor was it less pathetic that the fraud was so hollow and transparent. I doubt not that the sin of it was washed out with self-reproving tears, and cannot think that they were shed in vain.

So the seasons passed, and we waited, till in the late summer of 1849 (my father having been away nineteen months) there came another letter to say that he was about to start for home. He had found what he sought, so he said, but could not rightly understand its value, or, indeed, make head or tail of it by himself, and dared not ask strangers to help him. Perhaps, however, when he came home, Jasper (who was such a scholar) would help him; and maybe the key would be some aid. For the rest, he had been stricken with a fever—a malady common enough in those parts—but was better, and would start in something over a week, in the Belle Fortune, a barque of some 650 tons register, homeward bound with a cargo of sugar, spices, and coffee, and having a crew of about eighteen hands, with, he thought, one or two passengers. The letter was full of strong hope and love, so that my mother, who trembled a little when she read about the fever, plucked up courage to smile again towards the close. The ship would be due about October, or perhaps November. So once more we had to resume our weary waiting, but this time with glad hearts, for we knew that before Christmas the days of anxiety and yearning would be over.

The long summer drew to a glorious and golden September, and so faded away in a veil of grey sky; and the time of watching was nearly done. Through September the skies had been without cloud, and the sea almost breathless, but with the coming of October came dirty weather and a strong sou'-westerly wind, that gathered day by day, until at last, upon the evening of October 11th, it broke into a gale. My mother for days had been growing more restless and anxious with the growing wind, and this evening had much ado to sit quietly and endure. I remembered that as the storm raged without and tore at the door-hinges, while the rain lashed and smote the tamarisk branches against the panes, I sat by her knee before the kitchen fire and read bits from my favourite "Holy War," which, in the pauses of the storm, she would explain to me.

I was much put to it that night, I recollect, by the questionable morality at one point of Captain Credence, who in general was my favourite hero, dividing that honour with General Boanerges for the most part, but exciting more sympathy by reason of his wound—so grievously I misread the allegory, or rather saw no allegory at all. So my mother explained it to me, though all the while, poor creature, her heart was racked with terror for her Mansoul, beaten, perhaps, at that moment from its body by the fury of that awful night. Then when the fable's meaning was explained, and my difficulty smoothed away, we fell to talking of father's home-coming, in vain endeavours to cheat ourselves of the fears that rose again with every angry bellow of the tempest, and agreed that his ship could not possibly be due yet (rejoicing at this for the first time), but must, we feigned, be lying in a dead calm off the West Coast of Africa; until we almost laughed—God pardon us!—at the picture of his anxiety to be home while such a storm was raging at the doors of Lantrig. And then I listened to wonderful stories of the East Indies and the marvels that men found there, and wondered whether father would bring home a parrot, and if it would be as like Aunt Loveday as the parrot down at the "Lugger Inn," at Polkimbra, and so crept upstairs to bed to dream of Captain Credence and parrots, and the "Lugger Inn" in the city of Mansoul, as though no fiends were shouting without and whirling sea and sky together in one devil's cauldron.

How long I slept I know not; but I woke with the glare of a candle in my eyes, to see my mother, all in white, standing by the bed, and in her eyes an awful and soul-sickening horror.

"Jasper, Jasper! wake up and listen!"

I suppose I must have been still half asleep, for I lay looking at her with dazzled sight, not rightly knowing whether this vision were real or part of my strange dreams.

"Jasper, for the love of God wake up!"

At this, so full were her words of mortal fear, I shook off my drowsiness and sat up in bed, wide awake now and staring at the strange apparition. My mother was white as death, and trembling so that the candle in her hand shook to and fro, casting wild dancing shadows on the wall behind.

"Oh, Jasper, listen, listen!"

I listened, but could hear nothing save the splashing of spray and rain upon my window, and above it the voice of the storm; now moaning as a creature in pain, now rising and growing into an angry roar whereat the whole house from chimney to base shook and shuddered, and anon sinking slowly with loud sobbings and sighings as though the anguish of a million tortured souls were borne down the blast.

"Mother, I hear nothing but the storm."

"Nothing but the storm! Oh, Jasper, are you sure you hear nothing but the storm?"

"Nothing else, mother, though that is bad enough."

She seemed relieved a little, but still trembled sadly, and caught her breath with every fresh roar. The tempest had gathered fury, and was now raging as though Judgment Day were come, and earth about to be blotted out. For some minutes we listened almost motionless, but heard nothing save the furious elements; and, indeed, it was hard to believe that any sound on earth could be audible above such a din. At last I turned to my mother and said—

"Mother dear, it is nothing but the storm. You were thinking of father, and that made you nervous. Go back to bed—it is so cold here—and try to go to sleep. What was it you thought you heard?"

"Dear Jasper, you are a good boy, and I suppose you are right, for you can hear nothing, and I can hear nothing now. But, oh, Jasper! it was so terrible, and I seemed to hear it so plainly; though I daresay it was only my—Oh, God! there it is again! listen! listen!"

This time I heard—heard clearly and unmistakably, and, hearing, felt the blood in my veins turn to very ice.

Shrill and distinct above the roar of the storm, which at the moment had somewhat lulled, there rose a prolonged wail, or rather shriek, as of many human voices rising slowly in one passionate appeal to the mercy of Heaven, and dying away in sobbing, shuddering despair as the wild blast broke out again with the mocking laughter of all the fiends in the pit—a cry without similitude on earth, yet surely and awfully human; a cry that rings in my ears even now, and will continue to ring until I die.

I sprang from bed, forced the window open and looked out. The wind flung a drenching shower of spray over my face and thin night-dress, then tore past up the hill. I looked and listened, but nothing could be seen or heard; no blue light, nor indeed any light at all; no cry, nor gun, nor signal of distress—nothing but the howling of the wind as it swept up from the sea, the thundering of the surf upon the beach below; and all around, black darkness and impenetrable night. The blast caught the lattice from my hand as I closed the window, and banged it furiously. I turned to look at my mother. She had fallen forward on her knees, with her arms flung across the bed, speechless and motionless, in such sort that I speedily grew possessed with an awful fear lest she should be dead. As it was, I could do nothing but call her name and try to raise the dear head that hung so heavily down. Remember that I was at this time not eight years old, and had never before seen a fainting fit, so that if a sight so like to death bewildered me it was but natural. How long the fit lasted I cannot say, but at last, to my great joy, my mother raised her head and looked at me with a puzzled stare that gradually froze again to horror as recollection came back.

"Oh, Jasper, what could it be?—what could it be?"

Alas! I knew not, and yet seemed to know too well. The cry still rang in my ears and clamoured at my heart; while all the time a dull sense told me that it must have been a dream, and a dull desire bade me believe it so.

"Jasper, tell me—it cannot have been—"

She stopped as our eyes met, and the terrible suspicion grew and mastered us, numbing, freezing, paralysing the life within us. I tried to answer, but turned my head away. My mother sank once more upon her knees, weeping, praying, despairing, wailing, while the storm outside continued to moan and sob its passionate litany.

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