E-text prepared by Lionel Sear
DEAD MAN'S ROCK.
Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch (Q).
[This e-text prepared from an edition published in 1894]
To the Memory of My Father I dedicate this book.
BOOK I.—THE QUEST OF THE GREAT RUBY.
I. TELLS OF THE STRANGE WILL OF MY GRANDFATHER, AMOS TRENOWETH.
II. TELLS HOW MY FATHER WENT TO SEEK THE TREASURE; AND HOW MY MOTHER HEARD A CRY IN THE NIGHT.
III. TELLS OF TWO STRANGE MEN THAT WATCHED THE SEA UPON POLKIMBRA BEACH.
IV. TELLS HOW A SONG WAS SUNG AND A KNIFE DRAWN UPON DEAD MAN'S ROCK.
V. TELLS HOW THE SAILOR GEORGIO RHODOJANI GAVE EVIDENCE AT THE "LUGGER INN"
VI. TELLS HOW A FACE LOOKED IN AT THE WINDOW OF LANTRIG; AND IN WHAT MANNER MY FATHER CAME HOME TO US.
VII. TELLS HOW UNCLE LOVEDAY MADE A DISCOVERY; AND WHAT THE TIN BOX CONTAINED.
VIII. CONTAINS THE FIRST PART OF MY FATHER'S JOURNAL: SETTING FORTH HIS MEETING WITH MR. ELIHU SANDERSON, OF BOMBAY; AND MY GRANDFATHER'S MANUSCRIPT.
IX. CONTAINS THE SECOND PART OF MY FATHER'S JOURNAL: SETTING FORTH HIS ADVENTURES IN THE ISLAND OF CELON.
X. CONTAINS THE THIRD AND LAST PART OF MY FATHER'S JOURNAL: SETTING FORTH THE MUTINY ON BOARD THE BELLE FORTUNE
XI. TELLS OF THE WRITING UPON THE GOLDEN CLASP; AND HOW I TOOK DOWN THE GREAT KEY.
BOOK II—THE FINDING OF THE GREAT RUBY.
I. TELLS HOW THOMAS LOVEDAY AND I WENT IN SEARCH OF FORTUNE.
II. TELLS OF THE LUCK OF THE GOLDEN CLASP.
III. TELLS AN OLD STORY IN A TRADITIONAL MANNER.
IV. TELLS HOW I SAW THE SHADOW OF THE ROCK; AND HOW I TOLD AND HEARD NEWS.
V. TELLS HOW THE CURTAIN ROSE UPON "FRANCESCA: A TRAGEDY"
VI. TELLS HOW THE BLACK AND YELLOW FAN SENT A MESSAGE; AND HOW I SAW A FACE IN THE FOG.
VII. TELLS HOW CLAIRE WENT TO THE PLAY; AND HOW SHE SAW THE GOLDEN CLASP.
VIII. TELLS HOW THE CURTAIN FELL UPON "FRANCESCA: A TRAGEDY"
IX. TELLS HOW TWO VOICES LED ME TO BOARD A SCHOONER; AND WHAT BEFELL THERE.
X. TELLS IN WHAT MANNER I LEARNT THE SECRET OF THE GREAT KEY.
XI. TELLS HOW AT LAST I FOUND MY REVENGE AND THE GREAT RUBY.
DEAD MAN'S ROCK.
THE QUEST OF THE GREAT RUBY.
TELLS OF THE STRANGE WILL OF MY GRANDFATHER, AMOS TRENOWETH.
Whatever claims this story may have upon the notice of the world, they will rest on no niceties of style or aptness of illustration. It is a plain tale, plainly told: nor, as I conceive, does its native horror need any ingenious embellishment. There are many books that I, though a man of no great erudition, can remember, which gain much of interest from the pertinent and appropriate comments with which the writer has seen fit to illustrate any striking situation. From such books an observing man may often draw the exactest rules for the regulation of life and conduct, and their authors may therefore be esteemed public benefactors. Among these I, Jasper Trenoweth, can claim no place; yet I venture to think my history will not altogether lack interest—and this for two reasons. It deals with the last chapter (I pray Heaven it be the last) in the adventures of a very remarkable gem—none other, in fact, than the Great Ruby of Ceylon; and it lifts, at least in part, the veil which for some years has hidden a certain mystery of the sea. For the moral, it must be sought by the reader himself in the following pages.
To make all clear, I must go back half a century, and begin with the strange and unaccountable Will made in the year of Grace 1837 by my grandfather, Amos Trenoweth, of Lantrig in the County of Cornwall. The old farm-house of Lantrig, heritage and home of the Trenoweths as far as tradition can reach, and Heaven knows how much longer, stands some few miles N.W. of the Lizard, facing the Atlantic gales from behind a scanty veil of tamarisks, on Pedn-glas, the northern point of a small sandy cove, much haunted of old by smugglers, but now left to the peaceful boats of the Polkimbra fishermen. In my grandfather's time however, if tales be true, Ready-Money Cove saw many a midnight cargo run, and many a prize of cognac and lace found its way to the cellars and store-room of Lantrig. Nay, there is a story (but for its truth I will not vouch) of a struggle between my grandfather's lugger, the Pride of Heart, and a certain Revenue cutter, and of an unowned shot that found a Preventive Officer's heart. But the whole tale remains to this day full of mystery, nor would I mention it save that it may be held to throw some light on my grandfather's sudden disappearance no long time after. Whither he went, none clearly knew. Folks said, to fight the French; but when he returned suddenly some twenty years later, he said little about sea-fights, or indeed on any other subject; nor did many care to question him, for he came back a stern, taciturn man, apparently with no great wealth, but also without seeming to want for much, and at any rate indisposed to take the world into his confidence. His father had died meanwhile, so he quietly assumed the mastership at Lantrig, nursed his failing mother tenderly until her death, and then married one of the Triggs of Mullyon, of whom was born my father, Ezekiel Trenoweth.
I have hinted, what I fear is but the truth, that my grandfather had led a hot and riotous youth, fearing neither God, man, nor devil. Before his return, however, he had "got religion" from some quarter, and was confirmed in it by the preaching of one Jonathan Wilkins, as I have heard, a Methodist from "up the country," and a powerful mover of souls. As might have been expected in such a man as my grandfather, this religion was of a joyless and gloomy order, full of anticipations of hell-fire and conviction of the sinfulness of ordinary folk. But it undoubtedly was sincere, for his wife Philippa believed in it, and the master and mistress of Lantrig were alike the glory and strong support of the meeting-house at Polkimbra until her death. After this event, her husband shut himself up with the tortures of his own stern conscience, and was seen by few. In this dismal self-communing he died on the 27th of October, 1837, leaving behind him one mourner, his son Ezekiel, then a strong and comely youth of twenty-two.
This brings me to my grandfather's Will, discovered amongst his papers after his death; and surely no stranger or more perplexing document was ever penned, especially as in this case any will was unnecessary, seeing that only one son was left to claim the inheritance. Men guessed that those dark years of seclusion and self-repression had been spent in wrestling with memories of a sinful and perhaps a criminal past, and predicted that Amos Trenoweth could not die without confession. They were partly right, from knowledge of human nature; and partly wrong, from ignorance of my grandfather's character.
The Will was dated "June 15th, 1837," and ran as follows:—
"I, Amos Trenoweth, of Lantrig, in the Parish of Polkimbra and County of Cornwall, feeling, in this year of Grace Eighteen hundred and thirty-seven, that my Bodily Powers are failing and the Hour drawing near when I shall be called to account for my Many and Grievous Sins, do hereby make Provision for my Death and also for my son Ezekiel, together with such Descendants as may hereafter be born to him. To this my son Ezekiel I give and bequeath the Farm and House of Lantrig, with all my Worldly Goods, and add my earnest hope that this may suffice to support both him and his Descendants in Godliness and Contentment, knowing how greatly these excell the Wealth of this World and the Lusts of the Flesh. But, knowing also the mutability of earthly things, I do hereby command and enjoin that, if at any time He or his Descendants be in stress and tribulation of poverty, the Head of our Family of Trenoweth shall strictly and faithfully obey these my Latest Directions. He shall take ship and go unto Bombay in India, to the house of Elihu Sanderson, Esquire, or his Heirs, and there, presenting in person this my last Will and Testament, together with the Holy Bible now lying in the third drawer of my Writing Desk, shall duly and scrupulously execute such instructions as the said Elihu Sanderson or his Heirs shall lay upon him.
"Also I command and enjoin, under pain of my Dying Curse, that the Iron Key now hanging from the Middle Beam in the Front Parlour be not touched or moved, until he who undertakes this Task shall have returned and have crossed the threshold of Lantrig, having duly performed all the said Instructions. And furthermore that the said Task be not undertaken lightly or except in direst Need, under pain of Grievous and Sore Affliction. This I say, knowing well the Spiritual and worldly Perils that shall beset such an one, and having myself been brought near to Destruction of Body and Soul, which latter may Christ in His Mercy avert.
"Thus, having eased my mind of great and pressing Anguish, I commend my soul to God, before Whose Judgment Bar I shall be presently summoned to stand, the greatest of sinners, yet not without hope of Everlasting Redemption, for Christ's sake. Amen.
Such was the Will, written on stiff parchment in crabbed and unscholarly characters, without legal forms or witnesses; but all such were needless, as I have pointed out. And, indeed, my father was wise, as I think, to show it to nobody, but go his way quietly as before, managing the farm as he had managed it during the old man's last years. Only by degrees he broke from the seclusion which had been natural to him during his parents' lifetime, so far as to look about for a wife—shyly enough at first—until he caught the dark eyes of Margery Freethy one Sunday morning in Polkimbra Church, whither he had gone of late for freedom, to the no small tribulation of the meeting-house. Now, whether this tribulation arose from the backsliding of a promising member, or the loss of the owner of Lantrig (who was at the same time unmarried), I need not pause here to discuss. Nor is it necessary to tell how regularly Margery and Ezekiel found themselves in church, nor how often they caught each other's eyes straying from the prayer-book. It is enough that at the year's end Margery answered Ezekiel's question, and shortly after came to Lantrig "for good."
The first years of their married life must have been very happy, as I gather from the hushed joy with which my mother always spoke of them. I gather also that my first appearance in this world caused more delight than I have ever given since—God forgive me for it! But shortly after I was four years old everything began to go wrong. First of all, two ships in which my father had many shares were lost at sea; then the cattle were seized with plague, and the stock gradually dwindled away to nothing. Finally, my father's bank broke—or, as we say in the West, "went scat!"—and we were left all but penniless, with the prospect of having to sell Lantrig, being without stock and lacking means to replenish it. It was at this time, I have since learnt from my mother, that Amos Trenoweth's Will was first thought about. She, poor soul! had never heard of the parchment before, and her heart misgave her as she read of peril to soul and body sternly hinted at therein. Also, her best-beloved brother had gone down in a squall off the Cape of Good Hope, so that she always looked upon the sea as a cruel and treacherous foe, and shuddered to think of it as lying in wait for her Ezekiel's life. It came to pass, therefore, that for two years the young wife's tears and entreaties prevailed; but at the end of this time, matters growing worse and worse, and also because it seemed hard that Lantrig should pass away from the Trenoweths while, for aught we knew, treasure was to be had for the looking, poverty and my father's wish prevailed, and it was determined, with the tearful assent of my mother, that he should start to seek this Elihu Sanderson, of Bombay, and, with good fortune, save the failing house of the Trenoweths. Only he waited until the worst of the winter was over, and then, having commended us both to the care of his aunt, Elizabeth Loveday, of Lizard Town, and provided us with the largest sum he could scrape together (and small indeed it was), he started for the port of Plymouth one woeful morning in February, and thence sailed away in the good ship Golden Wave to win his inheritance.
TELLS HOW MY FATHER WENT TO SEEK THE TREASURE; AND HOW MY MOTHER HEARD A CRY IN THE NIGHT.
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.
TELLS OF TWO STRANGE MEN THAT WATCHED THE SEA UPON POLKIMBRA BEACH.
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.
"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—
"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.
TELLS HOW A SONG WAS SUNG AND A KNIFE DRAWN UPON DEAD MAN'S ROCK.
There was no escape. I have said that the ascent of Dead Man's Rock was possible, but that was upon the northern side, from which we were now utterly cut off. Hemmed in as we were between the sheer cliff and the precipice, we could only sit still and await the man's coming. Utter fear had apparently robbed my companion of all his faculties, for he sat, a stony image of despair, looking with staring, vacant eyes at the spot where his enemy would appear; while as for me, dreading I knew not what, I clung to the rock and listened breathlessly to the sound of the footsteps as they came nearer and nearer. Presently, within about fifteen feet, as I guess, of our hiding-place, they suddenly ceased, and a full, rich voice broke out in song—
"Sing hey! for the dead man's eyes, my lads; Sing ho! for the dead man's hand; For his glittering eyes are the salt sea's prize, And his fingers clutch the sand, my lads— Sing ho! how they grip the land!
"Sing hey! for the dead man's lips, my lads; Sing ho! for the dead man's soul. At his red, red lips the merrymaid sips For the kiss that his sweetheart stole, my lads— Sing ho! for the bell shall toll!"
The words were full and clear upon the morning air—so clear that their weird horror, together with the strangeness of the tune (which had a curious catch in the last line but one) and, above all, the sweetness of the voice, held me spellbound. I glanced again at my companion. He had not changed his position, but still sat motionless, save that his dry lips were again working and twitching as though they tried to follow the words of the song. Presently the footsteps again began to advance, and again the voice broke out—
"So it's hey! for the homeward bound, my lads, And ho! for the drunken crew. For his messmates round lie dead and drowned, And the devil has got his due, my Lads— Sing ho! but he—"
He saw us. He had turned the corner, and stood facing us; and as he faced us, I understood my companion's horror. The new-comer wore a shirt of the same red colour as my comrade, and trousers of the same stuff, but less cut and torn with the rocks. At his side hung an empty sheath, that must once have held a short knife, and the handle of another knife glittered above his waistband. But it was his face that fascinated all my gaze. Even had I no other cause to remember it, I could never forget the lines of that wicked mouth, or the glitter in those cruel eyes as their first sharp flash of surprise faded into a mocking and evil smile.
For a minute or so he stood tranquilly watching our confusion, while the smile grew more and more devilishly bland. Not a word was spoken. What my comrade did I know not, but, for myself, I could not take my eyes from that fiendish face.
At last he spoke: in a sweet and silvery voice, that in company with such eyes was an awful and fantastic lie, he spoke—
"Well, this is pleasant indeed. To run across an old comrade in flesh and blood when you thought him five fathom deep in the salt water is one of the pleasantest things in life, isn't it, lad? To put on sackcloth and ashes, to go about refusing to be comforted, to find no joy in living because an old shipmate is dead and drowned, and then suddenly to come upon him doing the very same for you—why, there's nothing that compares with it for real, hearty pleasure; is there, John? You seem a bit dazed, John: it's too good to be true, you think? Well, it shows your good heart; shows what I call real feeling. But you always were a true friend, always the one to depend upon, eh, John? Why don't you speak, John, and say how glad you are to see your old friend back, alive and hearty?"
John's lips were trembling, and something seemed working in his throat, but no sound came.
"Ah, John, you were always the one for feeling a thing, and now the joy is too much for you. Considerate, too, it was of you, and really kind—but that's you, John, all over—to wear an old shipmate's cap in affectionate memory. No, John, don't deprive yourself of it."
The wretched man felt with quivering fingers for the cap, took it off and laid it on the rock beside me, but never spoke.
"And who is the boy, John? But, there, you were always one to make friends. Everybody loves you; they can't help themselves. Lucy loved you when she wouldn't look at me, would she? You were always so gentle and quiet, John, except perhaps when the drink was in you: and even then you didn't mean any harm; it was only your play, wasn't it, John?"
John's face was a shade whiter, and again something worked in his throat, but still he uttered no word.
"Well, anyhow, John, it's a real treat to see you—and looking so well, too. To think that we two, of all men, should have been on the jib-boom when she struck! By the way, John, wasn't there another with us? Now I come to think of it, there must have been another. What became of him? Did he jump too, John?"
John found speech at last. "No; I don't think he jumped." The words came hoarsely and with difficulty. I looked at him; cold and shivering as he was, the sweat was streaming down his face.
"No? I wonder why."
"You're quite sure about it, John? Because, you know, it would be a thousand pities if he were thrown up on this desolate shore without seeing the faces of his old friends. So I hope you are quite sure, John; think again."
"He didn't jump."
"Poor fellow, poor fellow!" The words came in the softest, sweetest tones of pity. "I suppose there is no mistake about his melancholy end?"
"I saw him fall. He just let go and fell; it's Bible oath, Captain— it's Bible oath. That's how it happened; he just—let go—and fell. I saw it with my very eyes, and—Captain, it was your knife." To this effect John, with great difficulty and a nervous shifting stare that wandered from the Captain to me until it finally rested somewhere out at sea.
The Captain gave a sharp keen glance, smiled softly, set his thin lips together as though whistling inaudibly, and turned to me.
"So you know John, my boy? He's a good fellow, is John; just the sort of quiet, steady, Christian man to make a good companion for the young. No swearing, drinking, or vice about John Railton; and so truthful, too—the very soul of truth! Couldn't tell a lie for all the riches of the Indies. Ah, you are in luck to have such a friend! It's not often a good companion is such good company."
I looked helplessly at the model of truth to see how he took this tribute; but his eyes were still fixed in that eternal stare at the sea.
"And so, John, you saw him fall? 'Who saw him die?'—'I,' said the soul of truth, 'with my little eye'—and you have very sharp eyes, John. However, the poor fellow's gone; 'fell off,' you say? I don't wonder you feel it so; but, John, with all our sympathy for the unfortunate dead, don't you think this is a good opportunity for reading the Will? We three, you know, may possibly never meet again, and I am sure our young friend—what name did you say? Jasper?—I am sure that our young friend Mr. Jasper would like the melancholy satisfaction of hearing the Will."
The man's eyes were devilish. John, as he faced about and caught their gaze, looked round like a wild beast at bay.
"Will? What do you mean? I don't know—I haven't got no Will."
"None of your own, John, none of your own; but maybe you might know something of the last Will and Testament of—shall we say—another party? Think, John; don't hurry, think a bit."
"Lord, strike me—"
"Hush, John, hush! Think of our young friend Mr. Jasper. Besides, you know, you were such a friend of the deceased—such a real friend—and knew all his secrets so thoroughly, John, that I am sure if you only consider quietly, you must remember; you who watched his last moments, who saw him—'fall,' did you say?"
"Come, come, John; I'm sorry to press you, but really our young friend and I must insist on an answer. For consider, John, if you refuse to join in our conversation, we shall have to go—reluctantly, of course, but still we shall have to go—and talk somewhere else. Just think how very awkward that would be."
"You devil—you devil!"
John's voice was still hoarse and low, but it had a something in it now that sounded neither of hope nor fear.
"Well, yes; devil if you like: but the devil must have his due, you know—
"And the devil has got his due, my lads— Sing hey! but he waits for you!
"Yes, John, devil or no devil, I'm waiting for you. As to having my due, why, a lucky fellow like you shouldn't grudge it. Why, you've got Lucy, John: what more can you want? We both wanted Lucy, but you got her, and now she's waiting at home for you. It would be awkward if I turned up with the news that you were languishing in gaol—I merely put a case, John—and little Jenny wouldn't have many sweethearts if it got about that her father—and I suppose you are her father—"
Before the words were well out of his mouth John had him by the throat. There was a short, fierce struggle, an oath, a gleam of light—and then, with a screech of mortal pain and a wild clutch at the air, my companion fell backwards over the cliff.
It was all the work of a moment—a shriek, a splash, and then silence. How long the silence lasted I cannot tell. What happened next—whether I cried or fainted, looked or shut my eyes—is to me an absolute blank. Only I remember gradually waking up to the fact that the Captain was standing over me, wiping his knife on a piece of weed he had picked up on the rock, and regarding me with a steady stare.
I now suppose that during those few moments my life hung in the balance: but at the time I was too dazed and stunned to comprehend anything. The Captain slowly replaced his knife, hesitated, went to the ledge and peered over, and then finally came back to me.
"Are you the kind of boy that's talkative?" His voice was as sweet as ever, but his eyes were scorching me like live coals.
I suppose I must have signified my denial, for he went on—
"You heard what he called me? He called me a devil; a devil, mark you; and that's what I am."
In my state of mind I could believe anything; so I easily believed this.
"Being a devil, naturally I can hear what little boys say, no matter where I am; and when little boys are talkative I can reach them, no matter how they hide. I come on them in bed sometimes, and sometimes from behind when they are not looking; there's no escaping me. You've heard of Apollyon perhaps? Well, that's who I am."
I had heard of Apollyon in Bunyan; and I had no doubt he was speaking the truth.
"I catch little boys when they are not looking, and carry them off, and then their fathers and mothers don't see any more of them. But they die very slowly, very slowly indeed—you will find out how if ever I catch you talking."
But I did not at all want to know; I was quite satisfied, and apparently he was also; for, after staring at me a little longer, he told me to get up and go down the rock in front of him.
The agonies I suffered during that descent no pen can describe. Every moment I expected to feel my shoulder gripped from behind, or to feel the hands of some mysterious and infernal power around my neck. Close behind me followed my companion, humming—
"And the devil has got his due, my lads— Sing hey! but he waits for you!"
And though I was far from singing hey! at the prospect, I felt that he meant what he said.
Arrived at the foot of the rock, we passed through the archway on to Ready-Money Cove. Turning down to the edge of the sea, the Captain scanned the water narrowly, but there was no trace of the hapless John. With a muttered curse, he began quickly to climb out along the north side of the rock, just above the sea-level, and looked again into the depths. Once more he was disappointed. Flinging off his clothes, he dived again and again, until from sheer exhaustion he crept out, bundled on his shirt and trousers, and climbed back to me.
"Curse him! where can he be?"
I now saw for the first time how terribly worn and famished the man was: he looked like a wolf, and his white teeth were bare in his rage. He had cut his foot on the rock. Still keeping his evil eye upon me, he knelt down by the water's edge and began slowly to bathe the wound.
"By the way, boy, what did you say your name was? Jasper? Jasper what?"
"Ten thousand devils!"
He was on his feet, and had gripped me by the shoulder with a furious clutch. I turned sick and cold with terror. The blue sky swam and circled around me: then came mist and black darkness, lit only by the gleam of two terrible eyes: a shout—and I knew no more.
TELLS HOW THE SAILOR GEORGIO RHODOJANI GAVE EVIDENCE AT THE "LUGGER INN."
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?"
"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!"
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.
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.
"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!"