Dead Man's Rock by Arthur Quiller-Couch



Morning came at last, and with the first grey light the storm had spent its fury. By degrees my mother had grown calmer, and was now sleeping peacefully upon her bed, worn out with the passion of her terror. I had long ago dressed; but even had I wished to sleep again, curiosity to know the meaning of that awful cry would have been too strong for me. So, as soon as I saw that my mother was asleep, I took my boots in my hand and crept downstairs. The kitchen looked so ghostly in the dim light, that I had almost resolved to give up my plan and go back, but reflected that it behoved me to play the man, if only to be able to cheer mother when I came back. So, albeit with my heart in my mouth, I drew back the bolt—that surely, for all my care, never creaked so loudly before or since—and stepped out into the cool air. The fresh breeze that smote my cheeks as I sat down outside to put on my boots brought me back to the everyday world—a world that seemed to make the events of the night unreal and baseless, so that I had, with boyish elasticity of temper, almost forgotten all fear as I began to descend the cliff towards Ready-Money Cove.

Before I go any further, it will be necessary to describe in a few words that part of the coast which is the scene of my story. Lantrig, as I have said, looks down upon Ready-Money Cove from the summit of Pedn-glas, its northern arm. The cove itself is narrow, running in between two scarred and rugged walls of serpentine, and terminating in a little beach of whitest sand beneath a frowning and precipitous cliff. It is easy to see its value in the eyes of smugglers, for not only is the cove difficult of observation from the sea, by reason of its straitness and the protection of its projecting arms, but the height and abruptness of its cliffs also give it seclusion from the land side. For Pedn-glas on the north rises sheer from the sea, sloping downwards a little as it runs in to join the mainland, but only enough to admit of a rough and winding path at its inmost point, while to the south the cove is guarded by a strange mass of rock that demands a somewhat longer description.

For some distance the cliff ran out as on the north side, but, suddenly breaking off as if cleft by some gigantic stroke, left a gloomy column of rock, attached to it only by an isthmus that stood some six or seven feet above high-water mark. This separate mass went by the name of Dead Man's Rock—a name dark and dreadful enough, but in its derivation innocent, having been but Dodmen, or "the stony headland," until common speech perverted it. For this reason I suppose I ought not to call it Dead Man's Rock, the "Rock" being superfluous, but I give it the name by which it has always been known, being to a certain extent suspicious of those antiquarian gentlemen that sometimes, in their eagerness to restore a name, would deface a tradition.

Let me return to the rock. Under the neck that joins it to the main cliff there runs a natural tunnel, which at low water leads to the long expanse of Polkimbra Beach, with the village itself lying snugly at its further end; so that, standing at the entrance of this curious arch, one may see the little town, with the purple cliffs behind framed between walls of glistening serpentine. The rock is always washed by the sea, except at low water during the spring tides, though not reaching out so far as Pedn-glas. In colour it is mainly black as night, but is streaked with red stains that bear an awful likeness to blood; and, though it may be climbed—and I myself have done it more than once in search of eggs—it has no scrap of vegetation save where, upon its summit, the gulls build their nests on a scanty patch of grass and wild asparagus.

By the time I had crossed the cove, the western sky was brilliant with the reflected dawn. Above the cliffs behind, morning had edged the flying wrack of indigo clouds with a glittering line of gold, while the sea in front still heaved beneath the pale yellow light, as a child sobs at intervals after the first gust of passion is over-past. The tide was at the ebb, and the fresh breeze dropped as I got under the shadow of Dead Man's Rock and looked through the archway on to Polkimbra Sands.

Not a soul was to be seen. The long stretch of beach had scarcely yet caught the distinctness of day, but was already beginning to glisten with the gathering light, and, as far as I could see, was desolate. I passed through and clambered out towards the south side of the rock to watch the sea, if perchance some bit of floating wreckage might explain the mystery of last night. I could see nothing.

Stay! What was that on the ledge below me, lying on the brink just above the receding wave? A sailor's cap! Somehow, the sight made me sick with horror. It must have been a full minute before I dared to open my eyes and look again. Yes, it was there! The cry of last night rang again in my ears with all its supreme agony as I stood in the presence of this silent witness of the dead—this rag of clothing that told so terrible a history.

Child as I was, the silent terror of it made me faint and giddy. I shut my eyes again, and clung, all trembling, to the ledge. Not for untold bribes could I have gone down and touched that terrible thing, but, as soon as the first spasm of fear was over, I clambered desperately back and on to the sands again, as though all the souls of the drowned were pursuing me.

Once safe upon the beach, I recovered my scattered wits a little. I felt that I could not repass that dreadful rock, so determined to go across the sands to Polkimbra, and homewards around the cliffs. Still gazing at the sea as one fascinated, I made along the length of the beach. The storm had thrown up vast quantities of weed, that lined the water's edge in straggling lines and heaps, and every heap in turn chained and riveted my shuddering eyes, that half expected to see in each some new or nameless horror.

I was half across the beach, when suddenly I looked up towards Polkimbra, and saw a man advancing towards me along the edge of the tide.

He was about two hundred yards from me when I first looked. Heartily glad to see any human being after my great terror, I ran towards him eagerly, thinking to recognise one of my friends among the Polkimbra fishermen. As I drew nearer, however, without attracting his attention—for the soft sand muffled all sound of footsteps—two things struck me. The first was that I had never seen a fisherman dressed as this man was; the second, that he seemed to watch the sea with an absorbed and eager gaze, as if expecting to find or see something in the breakers. At last I was near enough to catch the outline of his face, and knew him to be a stranger.

He wore no hat, and was dressed in a red shirt and trousers that ended in rags at the knee. His feet were bare, and his clothes clung dripping to his skin. In height he could not have been much above five feet six inches, but his shoulders were broad, and his whole appearance, cold and exhausted as he seemed, gave evidence of great strength. His tangled hair hung over a somewhat weak face, but the most curious feature about the man was the air of nervous expectation that marked, not only his face, but every movement of his body. Altogether, under most circumstances, I should have shunned him, but fear had made me desperate. At the distance of about twenty yards I stopped and called to him.

I had advanced somewhat obliquely from behind, so that at the sound of my voice he turned sharply round and faced me, but with a terrified start that was hard to account for. On seeing only a child, however, the hesitation faded out of his eyes, and he advanced towards me. As he approached, I could see that he was shivering with cold and hunger.

"Boy," he said, in an eager and expectant voice, "what are you doing out on the beach so early?"

"Oh, sir!" I answered, "there was such a dreadful storm last night, and we—that is, mother and I—heard a cry, we thought; and oh! I have seen—"

"What have you seen?"—and he caught me by the arm with a nervous grip.

"Only a cap, sir," I said, shrinking—"only a cap; but I climbed up on Dead Man's Rock just now—the rock at the end of the beach—and I saw a cap lying there, and it seemed—"

"Come along and show it to me!" and he began to run over the sands towards the rock, dragging me helpless after him.

Suddenly he stopped.

"You saw nothing else?" he asked, facing round and looking into my eyes.

"No, sir."

"Nor anybody?"

"Nobody, sir."

"You are sure you saw nobody but me? You didn't happen to see a tall man with black hair, and rings in his ears?"

"Oh, no, sir."

"You'll swear you saw no such man? Swear it now; say, 'So help me, God, I haven't seen anybody on the beach but you.'"

I swore it.

"Say, 'Strike me blind if I have!'"

I repeated the words after him, and, with a hurried look around, he set off running again towards the rock. I had much ado to keep from tumbling, and even from crying aloud with pain, so tight was his grip. Fast as we went, the man's teeth chattered and his limbs shook; his wet clothes flapped and fluttered in the cold morning breeze; his face was drawn and pinched with exhaustion, but he never slackened his pace until we reached Dead Man's Rock. Here he stopped and looked around again.

"Is there any place to hide in hereabouts?" he suddenly asked.

The oddness of the question took me aback: and, indeed, the whole conduct of the man was so strange that I was heartily frightened, and longed greatly to run away. There was no help for it, however, so I made shift to answer—

"There is a nice cave in Ready-Money Cove, which is the next cove to this, sir. The smugglers used to use it because it was hidden so, but—"

I suppose my eyes told him that I was wondering why he should want to hide, for he broke in again—

"Well, show me this cap. Out on the face of this rock, you say— what's the name? Dead Man's Rock, eh? Well, it's an ugly name enough, and an ugly rock enough!" he added, with a shiver.

I climbed up the rock, and he after me, until we gained the ledge where I had stood before. I looked down. The cap was still lying there, and the tide had ebbed still further.

My companion looked for a moment, then, with a short cry, scrambled quickly down and picked it up. To me it had looked like any ordinary sailor's cap, but he examined it, fingered it, and pulled it about, muttering all the time, so that I imagined it must be his own, though at a loss to know why he made so much of recovering it. At last he climbed up again, holding it in his hands, and still muttering to himself—

"His cap, sure enough; nothing in it, though. But he was much too clever a devil. However, he's gone right enough; I knew he must, and this proves it, curse him! Well, I'll wear it. He's not left behind as much as he thought, but mad enough he'd be to think I was his heir. I'll wear it for old acquaintance' sake. Sit down, boy," he said aloud to me; "we're safe here, and can't be seen. I want to talk with you."

The rocky ledge on which we stood was about seven feet long and three or four in breadth. On one side of it ran down the path by which we had ascended; the other end broke off with a sheer descent into the sea of some forty feet in the present state of the tide. High above us rose an unscaleable cliff; at our feet lay a short descent to the ledge on which the cap had rested, and after that another precipice. It was not a pleasant position in which to be left alone with this strange companion, but I was helpless, and perhaps the trace of weakness and a something not altogether evil in his face, gave me some courage. Little enough it was, however, and in mere desperation I sat down on the side by the path. My companion flung himself down on the other side, with his legs dangling over the ledge, and so sat for a minute or two watching the sea.

The early sun was now up, and its oblique rays set the waves dancing with a myriad points of fire. Above us the rock cast its shadow into the green depths below, making them seem still greener and deeper. To my left I could see the shining sands of Polkimbra, still desolate, and, beyond, the purple line of cliffs towards Kynance; on my right the rock hid everything from view, except the open sea and the gulls returning after the tempest to inspect and pry into the fresh masses of weed and wreckage. I looked timidly at my companion. He was still gazing out towards the sea, apparently deep in thought. The cap was on his head, and his legs still dangled, while he muttered to himself as if unconscious of my presence. Presently, however, he turned towards me.

"Got anything to eat?"

I had forgotten it in my terror, but I had, as I crossed the kitchen, picked up a hunch of bread to serve me for breakfast. This, with a half-apologetic air, as if to deprecate its smallness, I produced from my pocket and handed to him. He snatched it without a word, and ate it ravenously, keeping his eye fixed upon me in the most embarrassing way.

"Got any more?"

I was obliged to confess I had not, though sorely afraid of displeasing him. He turned still further towards me, and stared without a word, then suddenly spoke again.

"What is your name?"

Truly this man had the strangest manner of questioning. However, I answered him duly—

"Jasper Trenoweth."

"God in heaven! What?"

He had started forward, and was staring at me with a wild surprise. Unable to comprehend why my name should have this effect on him, but hopeless of understanding this extraordinary man's behaviour, I repeated the two words.

His face had turned to an ashy white, but he slowly took his eyes off me and turned them upon the sea, almost as though afraid to meet mine. There was a pause.

"Father by any chance answering to the name of Ezekiel—Ezekiel Trenoweth?"

Even in my fright I can remember being struck with this strange way of speaking, as though my father were a dog; but a new fear had gained possession of me. Dreading to hear the answer, yet wildly anxious, I cried—

"Oh, yes. Do you know him? He was coming home from Ceylon, and mother was so anxious; and then, what with the storm last night and the cry that we heard, we were so frightened! Oh! do you know —do you think—"

My words died away in terrified entreaty; but he seemed not to hear me. Still gazing out on the sea, he said—

"Sailed in the Belle Fortune, barque of 600 tons, or thereabouts, bound for Port of Bristol? Oh, ay, I knew him—knew him well. And might this here place be Lantrig?"

"Our house is on the cliff above the next cove," I replied. "But, oh! please tell me if anything has happened to him!"

"And why should anything have happened to Ezekiel Trenoweth? That's what I want to know. Why should anything have happened to him?"

He was still watching the waves as they danced and twinkled in the sun. He never looked towards me, but plucked with nervous fingers at his torn trousers. The gulls hovered around us with melancholy cries, as they wheeled in graceful circles and swooped down to their prey in the depths at our feet. Presently he spoke again in a meditative, far-away voice—

"Ezekiel Trenoweth, fair, broad, and six foot two in his socks; why should anything have happened to him?"

"But you seem to know him, and know the ship he sailed in. Tell me— please tell me what has happened. Did you sail in the same ship? And, if so, what has become of it?"

"I sailed," said my companion, still examining the horizon, "from Ceylon on the 12th of July, in the ship Mary Jane, bound for Liverpool. Consequently, if Ezekiel Trenoweth sailed in the Belle Fortune we couldn't very well have been in the same ship, and that's logic," said he, turning to me for the first time with a watery and uncertain smile, but quickly withdrawing his eyes to their old occupation.

But he had lifted a great load from my heart, so that for very joy at knowing my father was not among the crew of the Mary Jane I could not speak for a time, but sat watching his face, and thinking how I should question him next.

"Sailed in the Mary Jane, bound for Liverpool," he repeated, his face twitching slightly, and his hands still plucking at his trousers, "sailed along with—never mind who. And this boy's Ezekiel Trenoweth's son, and I knew him; knew him well." His voice was husky, and he seemed to have something in his throat, but he went on: "Well, it's a strange world. To think of him being dead!" looking at the cap—which he had taken off his head.

"What! Father dead?"

"No, my lad, t'other chap: him as this cap belonged to. Ah, he was a devil, he was. Can't fancy him dead, somehow; seemed as though the water wasn't made as could have drowned him; always said he was born for the gallows, and joked about it. But he's gone this time, and I've got his cap. 'Tis a hard thought that I should outlive him; but, curse him, I've done it, and here's his cap for proof—why, what the devil is the lad staring at?"

During his muttered soliloquy I had turned for a moment to look across Polkimbra Beach, when suddenly my eyes were arrested and my heart again set violently beating by a sight that almost made me doubt whether the events of the morning were not still part of a wild and disordered dream. For there, at about fifty yards' distance, and advancing along the breakers' edge, was another man, dressed like my companion, and also watching the sea.

"What's the matter, boy? Speak, can't you?"

"It's a man."

"A man! Where?"

He made a motion forwards to look over the edge, but checked himself, and crouched down close against the rock.

"Lie down!" he murmured in a hoarse whisper. "Lie down low and look over."

My arm was clutched as though by a vice. I sank down flat, and peered over the edge.

"It's a man," I said, "not fifty yards off, and coming this way. He has on a red shirt, and is watching the sea just as you did. I don't think that he saw us."

"For the Lord's sake don't move. Look; is he tall and dark?"

His terrified excitement was dreadful. I thought I should have had to shriek with pain, so tightly he clutched me, but found voice to answer—

"Yes, he seems tall, and dark too, though I can't well see at—"

"Has he got earrings?"

"I can't see; but he walks with a stoop, and seems to have a sword or something slung round his waist."

"God defend us! that's he! Curse him, curse him! Lie down—lie down, I say! It's death if he catches sight of us."

We cowered against the rock. My companion's face was livid, and his lips worked as though fingers were plucking at them, but made no sound. I never saw such abject, hopeless terror. We waited thus for a full minute, and then I peered over the ledge again.

He was almost directly beneath us now, and was still watching the sea. At his side hung a short sheath, empty. I could not well see his face, but the rings in his ears glistened in the sunlight.

I drew back cautiously, for my companion was plucking at my jacket.

"Listen," he said—and his hoarse voice was sunk so low that I could scarcely catch his words—"Listen. If he catches us it's death— death to me, but perhaps he may let you off, though he's a cold-blooded, murderous devil. However, there's no saying but you might get off. Any way, it'll be safest for you to have this. Here, take it quick, and stow it away in your jacket, so as he can't see it. For the love of God, look sharp!"

He took something out of a pocket inside his shirt, and forced it into my hands. What it was I could not see, so quickly he made me hide it in my jacket. But I caught a glimpse of something that looked like brass, and the packet was hard and heavy.

"It's death, I say; but you may be lucky. If he does for me, swear you'll never give it up to him. Take your Bible oath you'll never do that. And look here: if I'm lucky enough to get off, swear you'll give it back. Swear it. Say, 'Strike me blind!'"

He clutched me again. Shaking and trembling, I gave the promise.

"And look, here's a letter; put it away and read it after. If he does for me—curse him!—you keep what I've given you. Yes, keep it; it's my last Will and Testament, upon my soul. But you ought to go half shares with little Jenny; you ought, you know. You'll find out where she lives in that there letter. But you'll never give it up to him. Swear it. Swear it again."

Again I promised.

"Mind you, if you do, I'll haunt you. I'll curse you dying, and that's an awful thing to happen to a man. Look over again. He mayn't be coming—perhaps he'll go through to the next beach, and then we'll run for it."

Again I peered over, but drew back as if shot; for just below me was a black head with glittering earrings, and its owner was steadily coming up the path towards us.

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