"Yes, stone! In a moment my knife was out and I was down on hands and knees cutting and tearing at the tendrils. Some of them were full three inches thick, but I slashed and tugged, with breath that came and went immoderately fast, with bleeding hands and thumping heart, until little by little the stone was bared and its outlines revealed themselves.
"But as they grew distinct and I saw what I had uncovered, I fell back in terror. The stone was about five feet ten inches in height, and was roughly shaped to represent a human head and neck. But the face it was that froze my heated blood in horror. Never until I die shall I forget that hellish expression. It was the smoothly-shaven face of a man of about fifty years of age, roughly carved after the fashion of many of the ruins on this mountain. But whoever fashioned it, the artist must have been a fiend. If ever malignant hate was expressed in form, it stood before me. Even the blank pupils made the malevolence seem but the more undying. Every feature, every line was horrible, every touch of the chisel had added a fresh grace of devilish spite. It was simply Evil petrified.
"As this awful face, bared of the innocent creeper that for years had shrouded its ugliness from the light of day, confronted me, a feeling of such repulsion overcame me that for several minutes I could not touch it. The neck was loosely set in a sort of socket fixed in the earth; this was all the monster's pedestal. I saw that it barely needed a man's strength to send it toppling over. Yet for a moment I could summon up none. At length I put my hands to it and with an effort sent it crashing over amid the brushwood.
"The trough in which this colossal head had rested was about four feet in depth, and narrowed towards the bottom. I put down my hand and drew out—a human thigh-bone. The touch of this would have turned me sick again, had not the statue's face already surfeited me with horror. As it was, I was nerved for any sight. The passion of my discovery was upon me, and I tossed the mouldering bones out to right and left.
"But stay. There seemed a great many in the trough. Surely this was the third thigh-bone that I held now in my hand. Yes, and below, close to the bottom of the trough, lay two skulls side by side. There were two, then, buried here. The parchment had only spoken of one. But I had no time to consider about this. What I sought now was the Secret, and as I took up the second skull I caught the gleam of metal underneath it. I put in my hand and drew out a Buckle of Gold.
"This buckle is formed of two pieces, bound to either end of a thin belt of rotten linen, and united by hook and socket. Its whole dimensions are but 3 inches by 2 inches, but inside its curiously carved border it is entirely covered with writing in rude English character. The narrowing funnel of the trough had kept it from being crushed by the statue, which fitted into a rim running round the interior. Beyond the buckle and the two skeletons there was nothing in the trough; but I looked for nothing else. Here, in my hands, lay the secret of the Great Ruby of Ceylon; my fingers clutched the wealth of princes. My journey had ended and the riches of the earth were in my grasp.
"Forgetful of my guides, forgetful of the flight of time, mindful of nothing but the Golden Buckle, I sat down by the rim of the trough and began to decipher the writing. The inscription, as far as I could gather, ran right across the clasp. It could be read easily enough and contained accurate directions for searching in some spot, but where that spot was it did not reveal. It might be close to the statue; and I was about to start up and make the attempt when I thought again of the parchment. Pulling it from my pocket, I read: ' . . . beneath this stone lies the secret of the Great Ruby; and yet not all, for the rest is graven on the Key which shall be already entrusted to you. These precautions have I taken that none may surprise this Secret but its right possessor. . . .'
"Now my father's Will had expressly enjoined, on pain of his dying curse, that this key should not be moved from its place until the Trenoweth who went to seek the treasure should have returned and crossed the threshold of Lantrig. Consequently the ruby was not buried on Adam's Peak, or to return for the key would have been so much labour wasted. Consequently, also, the Golden Buckle was valueless to anybody but him who knew the rest of my father's injunctions. Although not yet in my hand, the Great Ruby was mine. I was folding up the buckle with the parchment before rejoining the guides, when a curious thing happened.
"The sun had climbed high into heaven whilst I was absorbed in my search, and was now flooding the little lawn with light. In my excitement I had heard and seen nothing, nor noted that the heat was growing unbearable beneath the vertical rays. But as I was folding up the parchment a black shadow suddenly fell across the page. I started and looked up.
"Above me stood Simon Colliver.
"He was standing in the broad light of the sun and watching me intently, with a curious smile which grew as our eyes met. How long he had been there I could not guess, but the strangeness of meeting him on this spot, and the occupation in which I was surprised, discomposed me not a little. Hastily thrusting back the buckle and the parchment into my pocket, I scrambled to my feet and stood facing him. Even as I did so, all Mr. Sanderson's warnings came flashing into my mind.
"For full a minute we stood confronting each other without a word. He was still standing in the full blaze of the sunlight, with the same odd smile upon his face, and a peculiar light in his dark eyes that never swerved for a moment. Finally he gave a low laugh and nodding lightly, said—
"'Odd thing our meeting like this, eh? Hand of Fate or some such thing might be mixed up in it from the way we run across each other's path.'
"'Queer too, you'll allow, that we should both be struck with the fancy for ascending this mountain. Very few Europeans do it, so I'm told. I'm on my way up, are you? No? Coming down and taking things easily, to judge by the way I found you occupied.'
"Was the man mocking me? Or had he, after all, no suspicions? His voice was soft and pleasant as ever, nor could I detect a trace of irony in its tone. But I was on my guard.
"'This Peak seems strewn with the handiwork of the heathen,' he continued. 'But really you seem to be in luck's way. I congratulate you. What's this? Skeletons, eh? Upon my word, Trenoweth, you've unearthed a treasure. And this? A statue? Well, it's a queer place to come hunting for statues, but you've picked up an ugly-looking beggar in all conscience!'
"He had advanced to the head, which lay in the rank herbage staring up in hideous spite to heaven. Presently he turned to me and said—
"'Well, this is very remarkable. The fellow who carved this seems to have borrowed my features—not very complimentary of him, I must say. Don't you see the likeness?'
"It was solemn truth. Feature by feature that atrocious face was simply a reproduction of Colliver's. As I stared in amazement, it seemed more and more marvellous that I had not noticed the resemblance before. True, each feature was distorted and exaggerated to produce the utter malignity of its expression. But the face was the face of Colliver. Nobody could have called him a handsome man, but before this I had found Colliver not unpleasant to look upon. Now the hate of the statue's face seemed to have reflected itself upon him. I leant against a tree for support and passed my hand across my brow as if to banish a fearful dream. But it was no dream, and when he turned to speak again I could see lurking beneath the assumed expression of the man all the evil passions and foul wickedness engraved upon the stone.
"'Well,' he remarked, 'stranger things than this have happened, but not much. You seem distressed, Trenoweth. Surely I, if any one, have the right to be annoyed. But you let your antiquarian zeal carry you too far. It's hardly fair to dig these poor remains from their sepulchre and leave them to bleach beneath this tropical sun, even in the interest of science.'
"With this he knelt down and began to gather—very reverently, as I thought—the bones into a heap, and replace them in their tomb. This done, he kicked up a lump or two of turf from the little lawn and pressed it down upon them, humming to himself all the while. Finally he rose and turned again towards me—
"'You'll excuse me, Trenoweth. It's sentimental, no doubt, but I have conceived a kind of respect for these remains. Suppose, for example, this face was really a portrait of one of this buried pair. Why, then the deceased was very like me. I forgive him for caricaturing my features now; were he alive, it might be different. But this place is sufficiently out of the way to prevent the resemblance being noted by many. By the way, I forgot to ask how you chanced on this spot. For my part, I thought that I heard something moving in the thicket, so I followed the sound out of pure curiosity, and came upon you. Well, well! it's a strange world; and it's a wonderful thought too, that this may be the grave of some primaeval ancestor of mine who roamed this Peak for his daily food—an ancestor of some importance too, in his day, to judge by the magnificence of his tomb. A poet might make something out of this: to-day face to face with the day before yesterday. But that's the beauty of archaeology. I did not know it was a pursuit of yours, and am glad to see you are sufficiently recovered of your illness to take it up again. Good-bye for the present. I am obliged to be cautious in taking farewell of you, for we have such a habit of meeting unexpectedly. So, as I have to be up and moving for the summit, I'll say 'Good-bye for the present.' We may as well leave this image where it is; the dead won't miss it, and it's handy by, at any rate. Addio, Trenoweth, and best of luck to your future researches.'
"He was gone. I could hear him singing as he went a strange song which he had often sung on the outward voyage—
"'Sing hey! for the dead man's lips, my lads; Sing ho! for the dead man's soul. At his red, red lips. . . .'
"The song died away in the distance before I moved. I had hardly opened my lips during the interview, and now had much ado to believe it a reality. But the newly-turfed grave was voucher enough for this. A horror of the place seized me; I cast one shuddering look at the giant face and rushed from the spot, leaving the silent creepers to veil once more that awful likeness from the eyes of day.
"As I emerged upon the track again I came upon Peter and Paul, who were seeking me high and low, with dismay written upon their faces. Excusing my absence as best I could, I declared myself ready, in spite of my ankle, to make all haste in the descent. Of our journey down the Peak I need say little, except that, lame as I was, I surprised and exhausted my guides in my hurry. Of the dangers and difficulties which had embarrassed our ascent I seemed to feel nothing. Except in the cool of the forest, the heat was almost insufferable; but I would hear of no delay until we reached Ratnapoora. Here, instead of returning as we had come, we took a boat down the Kalu-ganga river to Cattura, and thence travelled along the coast by Pantura to Colombo.
"The object of my journey is now accomplished: and it only remains to hasten home with all speed. But I am feeling strangely unwell as I write this. My head has never fully recovered that blow at Bombay, and I think the hours during which I remained exposed to the sun's rays, by the side of that awful image, must have affected it. Or perhaps the fatigue of the journey has worn me out. If I am going to sicken I must hide my secret. It would be safer to bury it with the Journal, at any rate for the time, somewhere in the garden here. I have a tin box that will just answer the purpose. My head is giving me agony. I can write no more."
CONTAINS THE THIRD AND LAST PART OF MY FATHER'S JOURNAL: SETTING FORTH THE MUTINY ON BOARD THE BELLE FORTUNE.
"June 19th.—Strange that wherever I am hospitably entertained I recompense my host by falling ill in his house. Since my last entry in this Journal I have been lying at the gate of death, smitten down with a sore sickness. It seems that the long exposure and weariness of my journey to the Peak threw me into a fever: but of this I should soon have recovered, were it not for my head, which I fear will never be wholly right again. That cowardly blow upon Malabar Hill has made a sad wreck of me; twice, when I seemed in a fair way to recovery, has my mind entirely given way. Mr. Eversleigh, indeed, assures me that my life has more than once been despaired of—and then what would have become of poor Margery? I hope I am thankful to God for so mercifully sparing my poor life, the more so because conscious how unworthy I am to appear before Him.
"I trust I did not betray my secret in my wanderings. Mr. Eversleigh tells me I talked the strangest stuff at times—about rubies and skeletons, and a certain dreadful face from which I was struggling to escape. But the security of my Journal and the golden clasp, which I recovered to-day, somewhat reassures me. I am allowed to walk in the garden for a short space every day, but not until to-day have I found strength to dig for my hoard. I can hardly describe my emotions on finding it safe and sound.
"Poor Margery! How anxious she must be getting at my silence. I will write her to-morrow—at least I will begin my letter to-morrow, for I shall not have strength to finish it in one day. Even now I ought not to be writing, but I cannot forbear making an entry in my recovered Journal, if only to record my thankfulness to Heaven for my great deliverance.
"June 22nd.—I have written to Margery, but torn the letter up on second thoughts, as I had better wait until I hear news of a vessel in which I can safely travel home. Mr. Eversleigh (who is very kind to me, though not so hearty as Mr. Sanderson) will not hear of my starting in my present condition. I wonder in what part of the world Colliver is travelling now.
"July 1st.—Oh, this weary waiting! Shall I never see the shores of England again? The doctor says that I only make myself worse with fretting; but it is hard to linger so—when at my journey's end lies wealth almost beyond the imagination, and (what is far more to me) the sight of my dear ones.
"July 4th.—In answer to my entreaties, Mr. Eversleigh has consented to make inquiries about the homeward-bound vessels starting from Colombo. The result is that he has at once allayed my impatience, and compassed his end of keeping me a little longer, by selecting— upon condition that I approve his choice—an East Indiaman due to sail in about a fortnight's time. The name of the ship is the Belle Fortune, and of the captain, Cyrus Holding. In spite of the name the ship is English, and is a barque of about 600 tons register. Her cargo consists of sugar and coffee, and her crew numbers some eighteen hands. To-morrow I am going down with Mr. Eversleigh to inspect her, but I am prepared beforehand to find her to my liking. The only pity is that she does not start earlier.
"July 6th.—Weak as I am, even yesterday's short excursion exhausted me, so that I felt unable to write a word last night. I have been over the Belle Fortune, and am more than pleased, especially with her captain, whose honest face took my fancy at once. I have a most comfortable cabin next to his set apart for me, at little cost, since it had been fitted up for a lady on the outward voyage: so that I shall still have a little money in pocket on my return, as my living, both here and at Bombay, has cost me nothing, and the doctor's bills have not exhausted my store. I wrote to Margery to-day, making as light of my illness as I could, and saying nothing of the business on Malabar Hill. That will best be told her when she has me home again, and can hold my hand feeling that I am secure.
"July 8th.—I have been down again to-day to see the Belle Fortune. I forgot to say that she belongs to Messrs. Vincent and Hext, of Bristol, and is bound for that port. The only other passengers are a Dr. Concanen and his wife, who are acquaintances of Mr. Eversleigh. Dr. Concanen is a physician with a good practice in Colombo, or was— as his wife's delicate health has forced him to throw up his employment here and return to England. Mr. Eversleigh introduced me to them this morning on the Belle Fortune. The husband is almost as tall as my host, and looks a man of great strength: Mrs. Concanen is frail and worn, but very lovely. To-day she seemed so ill that I offered to give up my cabin, which is really much more comfortable than theirs. But she would not hear of it, insisting that I was by far the greater invalid, and that a sailing vessel would quickly set her right again—especially a vessel bound for England. Altogether they promise to be most pleasant companions. I forgot to say that Mrs. Concanen is taking a native maid home to act as her nurse.
"July 11th.—We start in a week's time. I had a long talk with Captain Holding to-day; he hopes to make a fairly quick passage, but says he is short of hands. I have not seen the Concanens since.
"July 16th.—We sail to-morrow afternoon. I have been down to make my final preparations, and find my cabin much to my liking. Captain Holding is still short of hands.
"July 17th., 7.30 p.m.—We cast off our warps shortly after four o'clock, and were quickly running homeward at about seven knots an hour. The Concanens stood on deck with me watching Ceylon grow dim on the horizon. As the proud cone of Adam's Peak faded softly and slowly into the evening mist, and so vanished, as I hope, for ever out of my life, I could not forbear returning thanks to Providence, which has thus far watched over me so wonderfully. There is a fair breeze, and the hands, though short, do their work well to all appearances. There were only fifteen yesterday, three having been missed for about a week before we sailed; but I have not yet seen Captain Holding to ask him if he made up his number of hands at the last moment. Mrs. Concanen has invited me to their cabin to have a chat about England.
"July 18th.—I am more disturbed than I care to own by a very curious discovery which I made this morning. As I issued on deck I saw a man standing by the forecastle, whose back seemed familiar to me. Presently he turned, and I saw him to be Simon Colliver. He has most strangely altered his appearance, being dressed now as a common sailor, and wearing rings in his ears as the custom is. Catching sight of me, he came forward with a pleasant smile and explained himself.
"'It is no manner of use, Trenoweth; we're fated to meet. You did not expect to see me here in this get-up; but I learnt last night you were on board. You look as though you had seen a ghost! Don't stare so, man—I should say 'sir' now, I suppose—it's only another of fortune's rubs. I fell ill after that journey to the Peak, and although Railton nursed me like a woman—he's a good fellow, Railton, and not as rough as you would expect—I woke up out of my fever at last to find all the money gone. I'm a fellow of resource, Trenoweth, so I hit on the idea of working my passage home; by good luck found the Belle Fortune was short of hands, offered my services, was accepted—having been to sea before, you know—sold my old clothes for this costume—must dress when one is acting a part— and here I am.'
"'Is Railton with you?' I asked.
"'Oh, yes, similarly attired. I did not see you yesterday, being busy with the cargo, so that it's all the more pleasant to meet here. But work is the order of the day now. You'll give me a good character to the captain, won't you? Good-bye for the present.'
"I cannot tell how much this meeting has depressed me. Certainly I have no reason for disbelieving the man's story, but the frequency and strangeness of our meetings make it hard to believe them altogether accidental. I saw Railton in the afternoon: he is greatly altered for the worse, and, I should think, had been drinking heavily before he shipped; but the captain was evidently too short of hands to be particular. I think I will give the Concanens my tin box to hide in their cabin. Of course I can trust them, and this will baffle theft; the clasp I will wear about me. This is a happy idea; I will go to their cabin now and ask them. It is 9.30 p.m., and the wind is still fair, I believe.
"July 20th.—We have so far kept up an average speed of seven and a half knots an hour, and Captain Holding thinks we shall make even better sailing when the hands are more accustomed to their work. I spend my time mostly with the Concanens—who readily, by the way, undertook the care of my tin box—and find them the most agreeable of fellow-travellers. Mrs. Concanen has a very sweet voice, and her husband has learnt to accompany it on the guitar, so that altogether we spend very pleasant evenings.
"July 21st, 22nd, 23rd.—The weather is still beautiful, and the breeze steady. Last night, at about six in the evening, it freshened up, and we ran all night under reefed topsails in expectation of a squall; but nothing came of it. I trust the wind will last, not only because it brings me nearer home, but also because without it the heat would be intolerable. The mention of home leads me to say that Mrs. Concanen was most sympathetic when I spoke of Margery. It is good to be able to talk of my wife to this kind creature, and she is so devoted to her husband that she plainly finds it easy to sympathise. They are a most happy couple.
"July 24th.—Our voyage, hitherto so prosperous, has been marred to-day by a sad accident. Mr. Wilkins, the mate, was standing almost directly under the mainmast at about 4.30 this afternoon, when Railton, who was aloft, let slip a block, which descended on the mate's head, striking it with fearful force and killing him instantly. He was an honest, kindly man, to judge from the little I have seen of him, and, as Captain Holding assures me, an excellent navigator. Poor Railton was dreadfully upset by the effects of his clumsiness; although I dislike the man, I have not the heart to blame him when I see the contrition upon his face.
"July 25th, midnight.—We buried Wilkins to-day. Captain Holding read the burial service, and was much affected, for Wilkins was a great friend of his; we then lowered the body into the sea. I spent the evening with the Concanens, the captain being on deck and too depressed to receive consolation. Nor was it much better with us in the cabin. Although we tried to talk we were all depressed and melancholy, and I retired earlier than usual to write my Journal.
"July 26th to August 4th.—There has been nothing to record. The wind has been fair as yet throughout, though it dropped yesterday (Aug. 3rd), and we lay for some hours in a dead calm. We have recovered our spirits altogether by this time.
"August 5th.—One of our hands, Griffiths, fell overboard to-day and was drowned. He and Colliver were out upon the fore-yard when Griffiths slipped, and missing the deck, fell clear into the sea. The captain was below at the time, but rushed upon deck on hearing Colliver's alarm of 'Man overboard!' It was too late, however. The vessel was making eight knots an hour at the time, and although it was immediately put about, there was not the slightest hope of finding the poor fellow. Indeed, we never saw him again."
[At this point the Journal becomes strangely meagre, consisting almost entirely of disconnected jottings about the weather, while here and there occurs merely a date with the latitude and longitude entered opposite. Only two entries seem of any importance: one of August 20th, noting that they had doubled the Cape, and a second written two days later and running as follows:—]
"August 22nd.—Dr. Concanen came into my cabin early this morning and told me that his wife had just given birth to a son. He seemed prodigiously elated; and I congratulated him heartily, as this is the first child born to them. He stayed but a moment or so with me, and then went back to attend to his wife. I spent most of the day on deck with Captain Holding, who is unceasingly vigilant now. Wind continues steadily S.E."
[After this the record is again scanty, but among less important entries we found the following:—]
"August 29th.—Mrs. Concanen rapidly recovering The child is a fine boy: so, at least, the doctor says, though I confess I should have thought it rather small. However, it seems able to cry lustily.
"Sept. 6th.—Sighted Ascension Island.
"Sept. 8th, 9th.—Wind dropping off and heat positively stifling. A curious circumstance occurred today (the 9th), which shows that I did well to be careful of my Journal. I was sitting on deck with the Concanens, beneath an awning which the doctor has rigged up to protect us from the heat, when our supply of tobacco ran short. As I was descending for more I met Colliver coming out of my cabin. He was rather disconcerted at seeing me, but invented some trivial excuse about fetching a thermometer which Captain Holding had lent me. I am confident now that he was on the look-out for my papers, the more so as I had myself restored the thermometer to the captain's cabin two days ago. It is lucky that I confided my papers to the Concanens. As for Railton, the hangdog look on that man's face has increased with his travels. He seems quite unable to meet my eye, and returns short, surly answers if questioned. I cannot think his dejection is solely due to poor Wilkins' death, for I noticed something very like it on the outward voyage."
[Here follow a few jottings on weather and speed, which latter—with the exception of five days during which the vessel lay becalmed— seems to have been very satisfactory. On the 17th they caught a light breeze from N.E., and on the 19th passed Cape Verde. Soon after this the Journal becomes connected again, and so continues.]
"Sept. 24th.—Just after daybreak, went on deck, and found Captain Holding already there. This man seems positively to require no sleep. Since Wilkins' death he has managed the navigation almost entirely alone. He seemed unusually grave this morning, and told me that four of the hands had been taken ill during the night with violent attacks of vomiting, and were lying below in great danger. He had not seen the doctor yet, but suspected that something was wrong with the food. At this point the doctor joined us and took the captain aside. They conversed earnestly for about three minutes, and presently I heard the captain exclaiming in a louder tone, 'Well, doctor, of course you know best, but I can't believe it for all that.' Shortly after the doctor went below again to look after his patients. He was very silent when we met again at dinner, and I have not seen him since.
"Sept. 25th.—One of the hands, Walters, died during the night in great agony. We sighted the Peak of Teneriffe early in the afternoon, and I remained on deck with Mrs. Concanen, watching it. The doctor is below, analysing the food. I believe he is completely puzzled by this curious epidemic.
"Sept. 26th.—Wind N.E., but somewhat lighter. Three more men seized last night with precisely the same symptoms. With three deaths and five men ill, we are now left with but nine hands (not counting the captain) to work the ship. Walters was buried to-day. I learned from Mrs. Concanen that her husband has made a post mortem examination of the body. I do not know what his conclusions are.
"I open my Journal again to record another disquieting accident. It is odd, but I have missed one of the pieces of my father's clasp. I am positive it was in my pocket last night. I now have an indistinct recollection of hearing something fall whilst I was dressing this morning, but although I have searched both cabin and state-room thoroughly, I can find nothing. However, even if it has fallen into Colliver's hands, which is unlikely, he can make nothing of it, and luckily I know the words written upon it by heart. Still the loss has vexed me not a little. I will have another search before turning in to-night.
"Sept. 27th.—Wind has shifted to N.W. The doctor was summoned during the night to visit one of the men taken ill two nights before. The poor fellow died before daybreak, and I hear that another is not expected to live until night. The doctor has only been on deck for a few minutes to-day, and these he occupied in talk with the captain, who seems to have caught the prevailing depression, for he has been going about in a state of nervous disquietude all the afternoon. I expect that want of sleep is telling upon him at last. The clasp is still missing.
"Sept. 28th.—A rough day, and all hands busily engaged. Wind mostly S.W., but shifted to due W. before nightfall. Three of the invalids are better, but the other is still lying in a very critical state.
"Sept. 29th, 30th, Oct. 1st, 2nd.—Weather squally, so that we may expect heavy seas in the Bay of Biscay. All the invalids are by this time in a fair way of recovery, and one of them will be strong enough to return to work in a couple of days. Doctor Concanen is still strangely silent, however, and the captain's cheerfulness seems quite to have left him. Oh, that this gloomy voyage were over!
"Oct. 3rd.—Weather clearer. Light breeze from S.S.W.
"Oct. 5th.—Let me roughly put down in few words what has happened, not that I see at present any chance of leaving this accursed ship alive, but in the hope that Providence may thus be aided—as far as human aid may go—in bringing these villains to justice, if this Journal should by any means survive me.
"Last night, shortly before ten, I went at Doctor Concanen's invitation to chat in his cabin. The doctor himself was busily occupied with some medical works, to which, as his wife assured me, he had been giving his whole attention of late. But Mrs. Concanen and I sat talking together of home until close upon midnight, when the baby, who was lying asleep at her side, awoke and began to cry. Upon this she broke off her conversation and began to sing the little fellow to sleep. 'Home, Sweet Home' was the song, and at the end of the first verse—so sweetly touching, however hackneyed, to all situated as we—the doctor left his books, came over, and was standing behind her, running his hands, after a trick of his, affectionately through her hair, when the native nurse, who slept in the next cabin and had heard the baby crying, came in and offered to take him. Mrs. Concanen, however, assured her that it was not necessary, and the girl was just going out of the door when suddenly we heard a scream and then the captain's voice calling, 'Trenoweth! Doctor! Help, help!'
"The doctor immediately rushed past the maid and up the companion. I was just following at his heels when I heard two shots fired in rapid succession, and then a heavy crash. Immediately the girl fell with a shriek, and the doctor came staggering heavily back on top of her. Quick as thought, I pulled them inside, locked the cabin door, and began to examine their wounds. The girl was quite dead, being shot through the breast, while Concanen was bleeding terribly from a wound just below the shoulder: the bullet must have grazed his upper arm, tearing open the flesh and cutting an artery, passed on and struck the nurse, who was just behind. Mrs. Concanen was kneeling beside him and vainly endeavouring to staunch the flow of blood.
"Oddly enough, the attack, from whatever quarter it came, was not followed up; but I heard two more shots fired on deck, and then a loud crashing and stamping in the fore part of the vessel, and judged that the mutineers were battening and barricading the forecastle. I unlocked the door and was going out to explore the situation, when the doctor spoke in a weak voice—
"'Quick, Trenoweth! never mind me. I've got the main artery torn to pieces and can't last many more minutes—but quick for the captain's cabin and get the guns. They'll be down presently, as soon as they've finished up there.'
"Opening the door and telling Mrs. Concanen—who although white as a sheet never lost her presence of mind for a moment—to lock it after me, I stole along the passage, gained the captain's cabin, found two guns, a small keg of powder (to get at which I had to smash in a locker with the butt-end of one of the guns), and some large shot, brought I suppose for shooting gulls.
"I found also a large packet of revolver cartridges, but no revolver; and it suddenly struck me that the shots already fired must have been from the captain's revolver, taken probably from his dead body. Yes, as I remembered the sound of the shots I was sure of it. The mutineers had probably no other ammunition, and so far I was their master.
"Fearful that by smashing the locker I had made noise enough to be heard above the turmoil on deck, I returned swiftly and had just reached the door of Concanen's cabin, when I heard a shout above, and a man whom I recognised by the voice as Johnston, the carpenter, came rushing down the steps crying, 'Hide me, doctor, hide me!' As Mrs. Concanen opened the door in answer to my call, another shot was fired, the man suddenly threw up his hands and we tumbled into the cabin together. I turned as soon as I had locked and barricaded the door, and saw him lying on his face—quite dead. He had been shot in the back, just below the shoulder-blades.
"The doctor also was at his last gasp, and the floor literally swam with blood. As we bent over him to catch his words he whispered, 'It was Railton—that—I saw. Good-bye, Alice,' and fell back a corpse. I carried the body to a corner of the cabin, took off my jacket and covered up his face, and turned to Mrs. Concanen. She was dry-eyed, but dreadfully white.
"'Give me the guns,' she said quietly, 'and show me how to load them.'
"I was doing so when I heard footsteps coming slowly down the companion. A moment after, two crashing blows were struck upon the door-panel and Colliver's voice cried—
"'Trenoweth, you dog, are you hiding there? Give me up those papers and come out.'
"For answer I sent a charge of shot through the cabin door, and in an instant heard him scrambling back with all speed up the stairs.
"By this time it was about 3 a.m., and to add to the horrors of our plight the lamp suddenly went out and left us in utter darkness. I drew Mrs. Concanen aside—after strengthening the barricade about the door—put her and the child in a corner where she would be safe if they attempted to fire through the skylight, and then sat down beside her to consider.
"If, as I suspected, the mutineers had only the revolver which they had taken from the captain, they had but one shot left, for I had already counted five, and it was not likely that Holding—who always, as I knew, carried some weapon with him—would have any loose cartridges upon him at a time when no one suspected the least danger.
"Next, as to numbers. Excluding Captain Holding—now dead—and including the cook I reckoned that there were fourteen hands on board. Of these, five were sick and probably at this moment barricaded in the forecastle. One, the carpenter, was lying here dead, and from the shriek which preceded the captain's cry, another had already been accounted for by the mutineers.
"This reduced the number to eight. The next question was, how many were the mutineers? I had guessed at once that Colliver and Railton had a hand in the business, for (in addition to my previous distrust of the men) it was just upon midnight when we heard the first cry, that is to say, the time when the watch was changed, and I knew that these two belonged to the captain's watch. But could they be alone?
"It seemed impossible, and yet I knew no others among the crew to distrust, and certainly Davis, who was acting as mate at present, was, although an indifferent navigator, as true as steel. Moreover, the fact that the mutineers' success in shooting the doctor had not been followed up, made my guess seem more likely. Certainly Colliver and Railton were the only two of whom we could be sure as yet. Nevertheless the supposition was amazing.
"I had arrived at this point in my calculations when a yell which I recognised, told me that they had caught Cox the helmsman and were murdering him. After this came dead silence, which lasted all through the night.
"I must hasten to conclude this, for we have no light in the cabin, and I am writing now by the faint evening rays that struggle in through the sky-light. As soon as morning broke I determined to reconnoitre. Cautiously removing the barricade, I opened the cabin door and stole up the companion ladder. Arrived at the top I peered cautiously over and saw the mutineers sitting by the forward hatch, drinking. They were altogether four in number—Colliver, Railton, a seaman called Rogerson, who had lately been punished by Captain Holding for sleeping when on watch, and the cook, a Chinaman. Rogerson was not with the rest, but had hold of the wheel and was steering. The vessel at the time was sailing under crowded canvas before a stiff sou'-westerly breeze. I kept low lest Rogerson should see me, but he was obviously more than half drunk, and was chiefly occupied in regarding his comrades with anything but a pleasant air. Just as I was drawing a beautiful bead however, and had well covered Colliver, he saw me and gave the alarm; and immediately the three sprang to their feet and made for me, the Chinaman first. Altering my aim I waited until he came close and then fired. I must have hit him, I think in the ankle, for he staggered and fell with a loud cry about ten paces from me. Seeing this, I made all speed again down the ladder, turning at the cabin door for a hasty shot with the second barrel, which, I think, missed. The other two pursued me until I gained the cabin, and then went back to their comrade. The rest of the day has been quite quiet. Luckily we have a large tin of biscuits in the cabin, so as far as food goes we can hold out for some time. Mrs. Concanen and I are going to take turns at watching to-night.
"Oct. 6th, 4 p.m.—At about 1.30 a.m. I was sleeping when Mrs. Concanen woke me on hearing a noise by the skylight. The mutineers, finding this to be the only point from which they could attack us with any safety, had hit upon the plan of lashing knives to the end of long sticks and were attempting to stab us with these clumsy weapons. It was so dark that I could hardly see to aim, but a couple of shots fired in rapid succession drove them quickly away. The rest of the night was passed quietly enough, except for the cries of the infant, which are very pitiable. The day, too, has been without event, except that I have heard occasional sounds in the neighbourhood of the forecastle, which I think must come from the sick men imprisoned there, and attempting to cut their way out.
"Oct. 7th.—We are still let alone. Doubtless the mutineers think to starve us out or to lull us into a false security and catch us unawares. As for starvation, the box of biscuits will last us both for a week or more; and they stand little chance of taking us by surprise, for one of us is always on the watch whilst the other sleeps. They spent last night in drinking. Railton's voice was very loud at times, and I could hear Colliver singing his infernal song—
"'Sing hey! for the dead man's lips, my lads.'
"That man must be a fiend incarnate. I have but little time to write, and between every word have to look about for signs of the mutineers. I wonder whither they are steering us.
"Oct. 8th.—A rough day evidently, by the way in which the vessel is pitching, but I expect the crew are for the most part drunk. We must find some way of getting rid of the dead bodies soon. I hardly like to speak to Mrs. Concanen about it. Words cannot express the admiration I feel for the pluck of this delicate woman. She asked me to-day to show her how to use a gun, and I believe will fight to the end. Her child is ailing fast, poor little man! And yet he is happier than we, being unconscious of all these horrors.
"Oct. 9th, 3.30 p.m.—Sick of this inaction I made another expedition up the companion to-day. Rogerson was steering, and Railton standing by the wheel talking to him. He had a bottle in his hand and seemed very excited. I could not see Colliver at first, but on glancing up at the rigging saw a most curious sight. There was a man on the main-top, the boatswain, Kelly, apparently asleep. Below him Colliver was climbing up, knife in mouth, and was already within a couple of yards of him. I fired and missed, but alarmed Kelly, who jumped up and seized a block which he had cut off to defend himself with. At the same moment Railton and Rogerson made for me. As I retreated down the ladder I stumbled, the gun went off and I think hit Rogerson, who was first. We rolled down the stairs together, he on top and hacking at me furiously with a knife. At this moment I heard the report of a gun, and my assailant's grasp suddenly relaxed. He fell back, tripping up Railton who was following unsteadily, and so giving me time to gain the cabin door, where Mrs. Concanen was standing, a smoking gun in her hand. Before we could shut the door, however, Colliver, who by this time had gained the head of the stairs, fired, and she dropped backwards inside the cabin. Locking the door, I found her lying with a wound just below the heart. She had just time to point to her child before she died. Was ever so ghastly a tragedy?
"Oct. 10th.—Awake all night, trying to soothe the cries of the child, and at the same time keeping a good look-out for the mutineers. The sea is terribly rough, and the poor corpses are being pitched from side to side of the cabin. At midday I heard a cry on deck, and judged that Kelly had dropped from the rigging in pure exhaustion. The noise in the forecastle is awful. I think some of the men there must be dead.
"Oct. 11th, 5 p.m.—The child is dying. There is a fearful storm raging, and with this crew the vessel has no chance if we are anywhere near land. God help—"
TELLS OF THE WRITING UPON THE GOLDEN CLASP; AND HOW I TOOK DOWN THE GREAT KEY.
So ended my father's Journal—in a silence full of tragedy, a silence filled in with the echo of that awful cry borne landwards on the wings of the storm; and now, in the presence of this mute witness, shaping itself into the single word "Murder." Of the effect of the reading upon us, I need not speak at any length. For the most part it had passed without comment; but the occasional choking of Uncle Loveday's voice, my own quickening breath as the narrative continued, and the tears that poured down the cheeks of both of us as we heard the simple loving messages for Margery—messages so vainly tender, so pitifully fond—were evidence enough of our emotion.
I say that we both wept, and it is true. But though, do what I could, my young heart would swell and ache until the tears came at times, yet for the most part I sat with cold and gathering hate. It was mournful enough when I consider it. That the hand which penned these anxious lines should be cold and stiff, the ear for which they were so lovingly intended for ever deaf: that all the warm hopes should end beside that bed where husband and wife lay dead— surely this was tragic enough. But I did not think of this at the time—or but dimly if at all. Hate, impotent hate, was consuming my young heart as the story drew to its end; hate and no other feeling possessed me as Uncle Loveday broke abruptly off, turned the page in search of more, found none, and was silent.
Once he had stopped for a moment to call for a candle. Mrs. Busvargus brought it, trimmed the wick, and again retired. This was our only interruption. Joe Roscorla had not returned from Polkimbra; so we were left alone to the gathering shadows and the horror of the tale.
When my uncle finished there was a long pause. Finally he reached out his hand for his pipe, filled it, and looked up. His kindly face was furrowed with the marks of weeping, and big tears were yet standing in his eyes.
"Murdered," he said, "murdered, if ever man was murdered."
"Yes," I echoed, "murdered."
"But we'll have the villain," he exclaimed, bringing his fist down on the table with sudden energy. "We'll have him for all his cunning, eh, boy?"
"Not yet," I answered; "he is far away by this time. But we'll have him: oh, yes, we'll have him."
Uncle Loveday looked at me oddly for a moment, and then repeated—
"Yes, yes, we'll have him safe enough. Joe Roscorla must have given the alarm before he had time to go far. And to think," he added, throwing up his hand, "that I talked to the villain only yesterday morning as though he were some unfortunate victim of the sea!"
I am sure that my uncle was regretting the vast deal of very fine language he had wasted: and, indeed, he had seldom more nobly risen to an occasion.
"Pearls, pearls before swine! Swine did I say? Snakes, if it's not an insult to a snake to give its name to such as Colliver. What did you say, Jasper?"
"We'll have him."
"Jasper, my boy," said he, scanning me for a second time oddly, "maybe you'll be better in bed. Try to sleep again, my poor lad— what do you think?"
"I think," I answered, "that we have not yet looked at the clasp."
"My dear boy, you're right: you're right again. Let us look at it."
The piece of metal resembled, as I have said, the half of a waist-buckle, having a socket but no corresponding hook. In shape it was slightly oblong, being about 2 inches by one and a half inches. It glittered brightly in the candle's ray as Uncle Loveday polished it with his handkerchief, readjusted his spectacles, and bent over it.
At the end of a minute he looked up, and said—
"I cannot make head or tail of it. It seems plain enough to read, but makes nonsense. Come over here and see for yourself."
I bent over his shoulder, and this is what I saw—
The edge of the clasp was engraved with a border of flowers and beasts, all exquisitely small. Within this was cut, by a much rougher hand, an inscription which was plain enough to read, though making no sense whatever. The writing was arranged in five lines of three words apiece, and ran thus:—
MOON END SOUTH. N.N.W. 22 FEET. NORTH SIDE 4. DEEP AT POINT. WATER 1.5 HOURS.
I read the words a full dozen times, and then, failing of any interpretation, turned to Uncle Loveday—
"Jasper," said he, "to my mind those words make nonsense."
"And to mine, uncle."
"Now attend to me, Jasper. This is evidently but one half of the clasp which your father discovered. That's as plain as daylight. The question is, what has become of the other half, of the hook that should fit into this eye? Now, what I want you to do is to try and remember if this was all that the man Railton gave you."
"This was all."
"You are quite certain?"
"You did not leave the other piece behind in the cow-shed by any chance?"
"No, for I looked at the packet before I hid it, and there was only one piece of metal."
"Very well. One half of the golden clasp being lost, the next question is, what has become of it?"
"To this," said Uncle Loveday, bending forward over the table, "two answers are possible. Either it lies at the bottom of the sea with the rest of the freight of the Belle Fortune, or it is in Colliver's possession."
"It may lie beneath Dead Man's Rock, in John Railton's pocket," I suggested.
"True, my boy, true; you put another case. But anyhow it makes no difference. If it lies at the bottom of the sea, whether in Railton's pocket or not, the secret is safe. If it is in Colliver's possession the secret is safe, unless he has seen and learnt by heart this half of the inscription. In any case, I am sorry to tell you— and this is what I was coming to—the secret is closed against us for the time."
"That is not certain," said I.
"Excuse me, Jasper, it is quite certain. You admit yourself that this writing is nonsense. Well and good. But besides this, I would have you remember," pursued Uncle Loveday, turning once more to my father's Journal, "that Ezekiel expressly says, 'The inscription ran right across the clasp.' It could be read easily enough and contained accurate directions for searching in some spot, but where that spot was it did not reveal—"
"Quite so," I interrupted, "and that is just what we have to discover."
"Why, by means of the key, as the parchment and the Will plainly show. We may still be beaten, but even so, we shall know whereabouts to look, if we can only catch Colliver."
"Bless the boy!" said Uncle Loveday, "he certainly has a head."
"Uncle," continued I, rising to my feet, "the secret of the Great Ruby is written upon my grandfather's key. That key was to be taken down when he that undertook the task of discovering the secret should have returned and crossed the threshold of Lantrig. Uncle, my father has crossed the threshold of Lantrig—"
"Feet foremost, feet foremost, my boy. Oh, poor Ezekiel!"
"Feet foremost, yes," I continued—"dead and murdered, yes. But he has come: come to find my mother dead, but still he has come. Uncle, I am the only Trenoweth left to Lantrig; think of it, the only one left—"
"Poor Ezekiel! Poor Margery!"
"Yes, uncle, and all I inherit is the knife that murdered my father, and this key. I have the knife, and I will take down the key. We are not beaten yet."
I drew a chair under the great beam, and mounted it. When first my grandfather returned he had hung the iron key upon its hook, giving strict injunctions that no one should touch it. There ever since it had hung, the centre of a host of spiders' webs. Even my poor mother's brush, so diligent elsewhere, had never invaded this sacred relic, and often during our lonely winter evenings had she told me the story of it: how that Amos Trenoweth's dying curse was laid upon the person that should touch it, and how the spiders' days were numbered with every day that brought my father nearer home.
There it hung now, scarcely to be seen for cobwebs. Its hour had come at last. Even as I stretched out my hand a dozen horrid things hurried tumultuously back into darkness. Even as I laid my hand on it, a big ungainly spider, scared but half incredulous, started in alarm, hesitated, and finally made off at full speed for shelter.
This, then, was the key that should unlock the treasure—this, that had from the first hung over us, the one uncleansed spot in Lantrig: this was the talisman—this grimy thing lying in my hand. The spiders had been jealous in their watch.
Stepping down, I got a cloth and brushed away the cobwebs. The key was covered thickly with rust, but even so I could see that something was written upon it. For about a minute I stood polishing it, and then carried it forward to the light.
Yes, there was writing upon it, both on the handle and along the shaft—writing that, as it shaped itself before my eyes, caused them to stare in wrathful incredulity, caused my heart to sink at first in dismay and then to swell in mad indignation, caused my blood to turn to gall and my thoughts to very bitterness. For this was what I read:—
On the handle were engraved in large capitals the initials A. T. with the date MDCCCXII. Alone the shaft, from handle to wards, ran on either side the following sentence in old English lettering:—
THY HOUSE IS SET UPON THE SANDS AND THY HOPES BY A DEAD MAN.
This was all. This short sentence was the sum of all the vain quest on which my father had met his end. "Thy house is set upon the sands," and even now had crumbled away beneath Amos Trenoweth's curse "Thy hopes by a dead man," and even now he on whom our hopes had rested, lay upstairs a pitiful corpse. Was ever mockery more fiendish? As the full cruelty of the words broke in upon me, once again I seemed to hear the awful cry from the sea, but now among its voices rang a fearful laugh as though Amos Trenoweth's soul were making merry in hell over his grim jest—the slaughter of his son and his son's wife.
White with desperate passion, I turned and hurled the accursed key across the room into the blazing hearth.
END OF BOOK I.
THE FINDING OF THE GREAT RUBY.
TELLS HOW THOMAS LOVEDAY AND I WENT IN SEARCH OF FORTUNE.
Seeing that these pages do not profess to be an autobiography, but rather the plain chronicle of certain events connected with the Great Ruby of Ceylon, I conceive myself entitled to the reader's pardon if I do some violence to the art of the narrator, and here ask leave to pass by, with but slight allusion, some fourteen years. This I do because the influence of this mysterious jewel, although it has indelibly coloured my life, has been sensibly exercised during two periods alone—periods short in themselves, but nevertheless long enough to determine between them every current of my destiny, and to supply an interpretation for my every action.
I am the more concerned with advertising the reader of this, as on looking back upon what I have written with an eye as far as may be impartial, I have not failed to note one obvious criticism that will be passed upon me. "How," it will be asked, "could any boy barely eight years of age conceive the thoughts and entertain the emotions there attributed to Jasper Trenoweth?"
The criticism is just as well as obvious. As a solitary man for ever brooding on the past, I will not deny that I may have been led to paint that past in colours other than its own. Indeed, it would be little short of a miracle were this not so. A morbid soul—and I will admit that mine is morbid—preying upon its recollections, and nourished on that food alone, cannot hope to attain the sense of proportion which is the proper gift of varied experience. I readily grant, therefore, that the lights and shades on this picture may be wrong, as judged by the ordinary eye, but I do claim them to be a faithful reproduction of my own vision. As I look back I find them absolutely truthful, nor can I give the lie to my own impressions in the endeavour to write what shall seem true to the rest of the world.
This must be, therefore, my excuse for asking the reader to pass by fourteen years and take up the tale far from Lantrig. But before I plunge again into my story, it is right that I should briefly touch on the chief events that occurred during this interval in my life.
They buried my father and mother in the same grave in Polkimbra Churchyard. I remember now that crowds of fisher-folk lined the way to their last resting-place, and a host, as it seemed to me, of tear-stained faces watched the coffins laid in the earth. But all else is a blurred picture to me, as, indeed, is the time for many a long day after.
Colliver was never found. Captain Merrydew raised the hue and cry, but the sailor Georgio Rhodojani was never seen again from the moment when his evil face leered in through the window of Lantrig. A reward was offered, and more than once Polkimbra was excited with the news of his arrest, but it all came to nothing. Failing his capture, Uncle Loveday was wisely silent on the subject of my father's Journal and the secret of the Great Ruby. He had not been idle, however. After long consultation with Aunt Elizabeth he posted off to Plymouth to gain news of Lucy Railton and her daughter, but without success. The "Welcome Home" still stood upon the Barbican, but the house was in possession of new tenants, and neither they nor their landlord could tell anything of the Railtons except that they had left suddenly about two months before (that being the date of the wreck of the Belle Fortune) after paying their rent to the end of the Christmas quarter. The landlord could give no reasons for their departure—for the house had a fair trade—but supposed that the husband must have returned from sea and taken them away. Uncle Loveday, of course, knew better, but on this point held his peace. The one result of all his inquiries was the certainty that the Railtons had vanished utterly.
So Lantrig, for the preservation of which my father had given his life, was sold to strangers, and I went to live with Aunt and Uncle Loveday at Lizard Town. The proceeds of the sale (and they were small indeed) Uncle Loveday put carefully by until such time as I should be cast upon the world to seek my fortune. For twelve uneventful years my aunt fed me, and uncle taught me—being no mean scholar, especially in Latin, which tongue he took great pains to make me perfect in. Thomas Loveday was my only companion, and soon became my dear friend. Poor Tom! I can see his handsome face before me now as it was in those old days—the dreamy eyes, the rare smile with its faint suggestion of mockery, the fair curls in which a breeze seemed for ever blowing, the pursed lips that had a habit of saying such wonderful things. In my dreams—those few dreams of mine that are happy—we are always boys together, climbing the cliffs for eggs, or risking our lives in Uncle Loveday's boat—always boys together. Poor Tom! Poor Tom!
So the unmarked time rolled on, until there came a memorable day in July on which I must touch for a moment. It was evening. I was returning with Tom to Lizard Town from Dead Man's Rock, where we had been basking all the sunny afternoon, Tom reading, and I simply staring vacantly into the heavens and wondering when the time would come that should set me free to unravel the mystery of this ill-omened spot. Finally, after taking our fill of idleness, we bathed as the sun was setting; and I remember wondering, as I dived off the black ledge, whether beneath me there lay any relic of the Belle Fortune, any fragment that might preserve some record of her end. I had dived here often enough, but found nothing, nor could I see anything to-day but the clean sand twinkling beneath its veil of blue, though here, as I guessed, must still lie the bones of John Railton. But I must hasten. We were returning over the Downs when suddenly I spied a small figure running towards us, and making frantic signals of distress.
"That," said I, "from the shape of it, must be Joe Roscorla."
And Joe Roscorla it was, only by no means the Joe Roscorla of ordinary life, but a galvanised and gesticulating Joe, whereas the Joe that we knew was of a lethargic bearing and slow habit of speech. Still, it was he, and as he came up to us he stayed all questioning by gasping out the word "Missus!" and then falling into a violent fit of coughing.
"Well, what is amiss?" asked Tom.
"Took wi' a seizure, an' maister like a thing mazed," blurted Joe, and then fell to panting and coughing worse than ever.
"What! a seizure? paralysis do you mean?" I asked, while Tom turned white.
"Just a seizure, and I ha'n't got time for no longer name. But run if 'ee want to see her alive."
We ran without further speech, Joe keeping at our side for a minute, but soon dropping behind and fading into distance. As we entered the door Uncle Loveday met us, and I saw by his face that Aunt Elizabeth was dead.
She had been in the kitchen busied with our supper, when she suddenly fell down and died in a few minutes. Heart disease was the cause, but in our part people only die of three complaints—a seizure, an inflammation, or a decline. The difference between these is purely one of time, so that Joe Roscorla, learning the suddenness of the attack, judged it forthwith a case of "seizure," and had so reported.
My poor aunt was dead; and until now we had never known how we loved her. Like so many of the Trenoweths she seemed hard and reserved to many, but we who had lived with her had learnt the goodness of her soul and the sincerity of her religion. The grief of her husband was her noblest epitaph.
He, poor man, was inconsolable. Without his wife he seemed as one deprived of most of his limbs, and moved helplessly about, as though life were now without purpose. Accustomed to be ruled by her at every turn, he missed her in every action of the day. Very swiftly he sank, of no assigned complaint, and within six months was laid beside her.
On his death-bed my uncle seemed strangely troubled about us. Tom was to be a doctor. My destiny was not so certain; but already I had renounced in my heart an inglorious life in Lizard Town. I longed to go with Tom; in London, too, I thought I should be free to follow the purpose of my life. But the question was, how should I find the money? For I knew that the sum obtained by the sale of Lantrig was miserably insufficient. So I sat with idle hands and waited for destiny; nor did I realise my helplessness until I stood in the room where Uncle Loveday lay dying.
"Tom," said my uncle, "Tom, come closer."
Tom bent over the bed.
"I am leaving you two boys without friends in this world. You have friends in Lizard Town, but Lizard Town is a small world, Tom. I ought to have sent you to London before, but kept putting off the parting. If one could only foresee—could only foresee."
He raised himself slightly on his elbow, and continued with pain—
"You will go to Guy's, and Jasper, I hope, may go with you. Be friends, boys; you will want friendship in this world. It will be a struggle, for there is barely enough for both. But it is best to share equally; she would have wished that. She was always planning that. I am doing it badly, I know, but she would have done it better."
The chill December sun came stealing in and illumined the sick man's face with a light that was the shadow of heaven. The strange doctor moved to the blind. My uncle's voice arrested him—
"No, no. Leave it up. You will have to pull it down very soon—only a few moments now. Tom, come closer. You have been a good boy, Tom, a good boy, though"—with a faint smile—"a little trying at times. Ah, but she forgave you, Tom. She loved you dearly; she will tell me so—when we meet."
My uncle's gaze began to wander, as though anticipating that meeting; but he roused himself and said—
"Kiss me, Tom, and send Jasper to me."
Bitterly weeping, Tom made room, and I bent over the bed.
"Ah, Jasper, it is you. Kiss me, boy. I have been telling Tom that you must share alike. God has been stern with you, Jasper, to His own good ends—His own good ends. Only be patient, it will come right at the last. How dark it is getting; pull up the blind."
"The blind is up, uncle."
"Ah, yes, I forgot. I have often thought—do you remember that day— reading your father's paper—and the key?"
"I have often thought—about that key—which you flung into the fire—and I picked out—your father Ezekiel's key—keep it. Closer, Jasper, closer—"
I bent down until my ear almost touched his lips.
"I have—often—thought—we were wrong that night—and perhaps— meant—search—in . . ."
For quite a minute I bent to catch the next word, then looking on his face withdrew my arm and laid the grey head back upon the pillow.
My uncle was dead.
So it happened that a few weeks after Tom and I, having found Uncle Loveday's savings equally divided between us, started from Lizard Town by coach to seek our fortunes in London. In London it is that I must resume my tale. Of our early mishaps and misadventures I need not speak, the result being discernible as the story progresses. We did not find our fortunes, but we found some wisdom. Neither Tom nor I ever confessed to disappointment at finding the pavements of mere stone, but certainly two more absolute Whittingtons never trod the streets of the great city.
But before I resume I must say a few words of myself. No reader can gather the true moral of this narrative who does not take into account the effect which the cruel death of my parents had wrought on me. From the day of the wreck hate had been my constant companion, cherished and nursed in my heart until it held complete mastery over all other passions. I lived, so I told myself over and over again, but to avenge, to seek Simon Colliver high and low until I held him at my mercy. Thousands of times I rehearsed the scene of our meeting, and always I held the knife which stabbed my father. In my waking thoughts, in my dreams, I was always pursuing, and Colliver for ever fleeing before me. In every crowd I seemed to watch for his face alone, at every street-corner to listen for his voice—that face, that voice, which I should know among thousands. I had read De Quincey's "Opium-Eater," and the picture of his unresting search for his lost Ann somehow seized upon my imagination. Night after night it was to Oxford Street that my devil drove me: night after night I paced the "never-ending terraces," as did the opium-eater, on my tireless quest—but with feelings how different! To me it was but one long thirst of hatred, the long avenues of gaslight vistas of an avenging hell, all the multitudinous sounds of life but the chorus of that song to which my footsteps trod—
"Sing ho! but he waits for you."
To London had Simon Colliver come, and somewhere, some day, he would be mine. Until that day I sought a living face in a city of dead men, and down that illimitable slope to Holborn, and back again, I would tramp until the pavements were silent and deserted, then seek my lodging and throw myself exhausted on the bed.
In a dingy garret, looking out, when its grimy panes allowed, above one of the many squalid streets that feed the main artery of the Strand, my story begins anew. The furniture of the room relieves me of the task of word-painting, being more effectively described by catalogue, after the manner of the ships at Troy. It consisted of two small beds, one rickety washstand, one wooden chair, and one tin candlestick. At the present moment this last held a flickering dip, for it was ten o'clock on the night of May the ninth, eighteen hundred and sixty-three. On the chair sat Tom, turning excitedly the leaves of a prodigiously imposing manuscript. I was sitting on the edge of the bed nearest the candle, brooding on my hate as usual.
Fortune had evidently dealt us some rough knocks. We were dressed, as Tom put it, to suit the furniture, and did it to a nicety. We were fed, according to the same authority, above our income; but not often. I also quote Tom in saying that we were living rather fast: we certainly saw no long prospect before us. In short, matters had reached a crisis.
Tom looked up from his reading.
"Do you know, Jasper, I could wish that our wash-stand had not a hole cut in it to receive the basin. It sounds hyper-critical. But really it prejudices me in the eyes of the managers. There's a suspicious bulge in the middle of the paper that is damning."
I was absorbed in my own thoughts, and took no notice. Presently he continued—
"Whittington is an overrated character, don't you think? After all he owed his success to his name. It's a great thing for struggling youth to have a three-syllabled name with a proparoxyton accent. I've been listening to the bells to-night and they can make nothing of Loveday, while as for Trenoweth, it's hopeless."
As I still remained silent, Tom proceeded to announce—
"The House will now go into the Question of Supply."
"The Exchequer," I reported, "contains exactly sixteen and eightpence halfpenny."
"Rent having been duly paid to-day and receipt given."
"Receipt given," I echoed.
"Really, when one comes to think of it, the situation is striking. Here are you, Jasper Trenoweth, inheritor of the Great Ruby of Ceylon, besides other treasure too paltry to mention, in danger of starving in a garret. Here am I, Thomas Loveday, author of 'Francesca: a Tragedy,' and other masterpieces too numerous to catalogue, with every prospect of sharing your fate. The situation is striking, Jasper, you'll allow."
"What did the manager say about it?" I asked.
"Only just enough to show he had not looked at it. He was more occupied with my appearance; and yet we agreed before I set out that your trousers might have been made for me. They are the most specious articles in our joint wardrobe: I thought to myself as walked along to-day, Jasper, that after all it is not the coat that makes the gentleman—it's the trousers. Now, in the matter of boots, I surpass you. If yours decay at their present rate, your walks in Oxford Street will become a luxury."
I was silent again.
"I do not recollect any case in fiction of a man being baulked of his revenge for the want of a pair of boots. Cheer up, Jasper, boy," he continued, rising and placing a hand on my shoulder. "We have been fools, and have paid for it. You thought you could find your enemy in London, and find the hiding-place too big. I thought I could write, and find I cannot. As for legitimate work, sixteen and eightpence halfpenny, even with economy, will hardly carry us on for three years."
I rose. "I will have one more walk in Oxford Street," I said, "and then come home and see this miserable farce of starvation out."
"Don't be a fool, Jasper. It is difficult, I know, to perish with dignity on sixteen and eightpence halfpenny: the odd coppers spoil the effect. Still we might bestow them on a less squeamish beggar and redeem our pride."
"Tom," I said, suddenly, "you lost a lot of money once over rouge-et-noir."
"Don't remind me of that, Jasper."
"No, no; but where did you lose it?"
"At a gambling hell off Leicester Square. But why—"
"Should you know the place again? Could you find it?"
"Then let us go and try our luck with this miserable sum."
"Don't be a fool, Jasper. What mad notion has taken you now?"
"I have never gambled in my life," I answered, "and may as well have a little excitement before the end comes. It's not much of a sum, as you say; but the thought that we are playing for life or death may make up for that. Let us start at once."
"It is the maddest folly."
"Very well, Tom, we will share this. There may be some little difficulty over the halfpenny, but I don't mind throwing that in. We will take half each, and you can hoard whilst I tempt fortune."
"Jasper," said Tom, his eyes filling with tears, "you have said a hard thing, but I know you don't mean it. If you are absolutely set on this silly freak, we will stand or fall together."
"Very well," said I, "we will stand or fall together, for I am perfectly serious. The six and eightpence halfpenny, no more and no less, I propose to spend in supper. After that we shall be better prepared to face our chance. Do you agree?"
"I agree," said Tom, sadly.
We took our hats, extinguished the candle, and stumbled down the stairs into the night.
We ordered supper at an eating-house in the Strand, and in all my life I cannot recall a merrier meal than this, which, for all we knew, would be our last. The very thought lent a touch of bravado to my humour, and presently Tom caught the infection. It was not a sumptuous meal in itself, but princely to our ordinary fare; and the unaccustomed taste of beer loosened our tongues, until our mirth fairly astonished our fellow-diners. At length the waiter came with the news that it was time for closing. Tom called for the bill, and finding that it came to half-a-crown apiece, ordered two sixpenny cigars, and tossed the odd eightpence halfpenny to the waiter, announcing at the same time that this was our last meal on earth. This done, he gravely handed me four half-crowns, and rose to leave. I rose also, and once more we stepped into the night.
Since the days of which I write, Leicester Square has greatly changed. Then it was an intricate, and, by night, even a dangerous quarter, chiefly given over to foreigners. As we trudged through innumerable by-streets and squalid alleys, I wondered if Tom had not forgotten his way. At length, however, we turned up a blind alley, lit by one struggling gas-jet, and knocked at a low door. It was opened almost immediately, and we groped our way up another black passage to a second door. Here Tom gave three knocks very loud and distinct. A voice cried, "Open," the door swung back before us, and a blaze of light flashed in our faces.
TELLS OF THE LUCK OF THE GOLDEN CLASP.
As the door swung back I became conscious first of a flood of light that completely dazzled my eyes, next of the buzz of many voices that confused my hearing. By slow degrees, however, the noise and glare grew familiar and my senses were able to take in the strange scene.
I stood in a large room furnished after the fashion of a drawing-room, and resplendent with candles and gilding. The carpet was rich, the walls were hung with pictures, which if garish in colour were not tasteless in design, and between these glittered a quantity of gilded mirrors that caught and reflected the rays of a huge candelabrum depending from the centre of the ceiling. Innumerable wax candles also shone in various parts of the room, while here and there rich chairs and sofas were disposed; but these were for the most part unoccupied, for the guests were clustered together beneath the great candelabrum.
They were about thirty in number, and from their appearance I judged them to belong to very different classes of society. Some were poorly and even miserably attired, others adorned with gorgeous, and not a few with valuable, jewellery. Here stood one who from his clothes seemed to be a poor artisan; there lounged a fop in evening dress. There was also a sprinkling of women, and not a few wore masks of some black stuff concealing the upper part of their faces.
But the strangest feature of the company was that one and all were entirely and even breathlessly watching the table in their midst. Even the idlest scarcely raised his eyes to greet us as we entered, and for a moment or two I paused at the door as one who had no business with this strange assemblage. During these few moments I was able to grasp the main points of what I saw.
The guests were grouped around the table, some sitting and others standing behind their chairs. The table itself was oblong in shape, and at its head sat the most extraordinary woman it had ever been my lot to behold. She was of immense age, and so wrinkled that her face seemed a very network of deeply-printed lines. Her complexion, even in the candle-light, was of a deep yellow, such as is rarely seen in the most jaundiced faces. Despite her age, her features were bold and bore traces of a rare beauty outlived; her eyes were of a deep yet glittering black, and as they flashed from the table to the faces of her guests, seemed never to wink or change for an instant their look of intense alertness.
But what was most noteworthy in this strange woman was neither her eyes, her wrinkles, nor her curious colour, but the amazing quantity of jewels that she wore. As she sat there beneath the glare of the candelabrum she positively blazed with gems. With every motion of her quick hands a hundred points of fire leapt out from the diamonds on her fingers; with every turn of her wrinkled neck the light played upon innumerable facets; and all the time those cold, lustrous eyes scintillated as brightly as the stones. She was engaged in the game as we entered, and turned her gaze upon us for an instant only, but that momentary flash was so cold, so absolutely un-human, that I doubted if I looked upon reality. The whole assembly seemed rather like a room full of condemned spirits, with this woman sitting as presiding judge.
As we still stood by the door a hush fell on the company; men and women seemed to catch their breath and bend more intently over the table. There was a pause; then someone called the number "Thirty-one," and the buzz of voices broke out again—a mixture of exclamations and disappointed murmurs. Then, and not till then, did the woman at the head of the table speak, and when she spoke her words were addressed to us.
"Come in, gentlemen, come in. You have not chosen your moment well, for the Bank is winning; but you are none the less welcome."
Her eyes as she turned them again upon us did not alter their expression. They were—though I can scarcely hope that this description will be understood—at once perfectly vigilant and absolutely impassive. But even more amazing was the voice that contradicted both these impressions, being most sweetly and delicately modulated, with a musical ring that charmed the ear as the notes of a well-sung song. The others, hearing us addressed, turned an incurious gaze upon us for a moment, and then fastened their attention anew upon the table.
Thus welcomed, we too stepped forward to the centre of the room and began to watch the game. I have never seen roulette played elsewhere, so do not know if its accessories greatly vary, but this is what I saw.
The table, which I have described as oblong, was lined to the width of about a foot around the edge with green baize, and on this were piled heaps of gold and silver, some greater, some less. Sunk in the centre was a well, in which a large needle revolved upon a pivot at a turn of the hand. The whole looked like a large ship's compass, but instead of north, south, east, and west, the table around the well, and at a level with the compass, was marked out into alternate spaces of red and black, bearing—one on each space—the figures from 1 to 36, and ending in 0, so that in all there were thirty-seven spaces, the one bearing the cipher being opposite to the strange woman who presided. As the game began again the players staked their money on one or another of these spaces. I also gathered that they could stake on either black or red, or again on one of the three dozens— 1 to 12, 13 to 24, 25 to 36. When all the money was staked, the woman bent forward, and with a sweep of her arm sent the needle spinning round upon its mission.
Thrice she did this, thrice the eager faces bent over the revolving needle, and each time I gathered from the murmurs around me that the bank had won heavily. At the end of the third round the hostess looked up and said to Loveday—
"You have been here before, and, if I remember rightly, were unfortunate. Come and sit near me when you have a chance, and perhaps you may break this run of luck. Even I am tiring of it. Or better still, get that dark handsome friend of yours to stake for you. Have you ever played before?" she asked, turning to me.
I shook my head.
"All the better. Fortune always favours beginners, and if it does I shall be well recompensed to have so handsome a youth beside me," and with this she turned to the game again.
At her right sat a grey-headed man with worn face and wolfish eyes, who might have been expected to take this as a hint to make way. But he never heard a word. All his sense was concentrated on the board before him, and his only motion was to bend more closely and eagerly over the play. Tom whispered in my ear—
"You have the money, Jasper; take her advice if you really mean to play this farce out. Take the seat if you get a chance, and play your own game."
"You have been here before," I answered, "and know more about the game."
"Here before! Yes, to my cost. No, no, the idea of play is your own and you shall carry it out. I am always unlucky, and as for knowledge of the game, you can pick that up by watching a round or two; it's perfectly simple."
Again the bank had won. At the left hand of our hostess stood a stolid man holding a small shovel with which he gathered in the winnings. All around were faces as of souls in torture; even the features of the winners (and these were few enough) scarcely expressed a trace of satisfaction, but seemed rather cast into some horrible trance in which they saw nothing but the piles of coin, the spinning needle, and the flashing hands of the woman that turned it. She all the while sat passionless and cold, looking on the scene as might some glittering and bejewelled sphinx.
As I gazed, as the needle whirled and stopped and once more whirled, the mad excitement of the place came creeping upon me. The glittering fingers of our hostess fascinated me as a serpent holds its prey. The stifling heat, the glare, the confused murmurs mounted like strong wine into my brain. The clink and gleam of the gold as it passed to and fro, the harsh voice of the man with the shovel calling at intervals, "Put on your money, gentlemen," the mechanical progress of the play, confused and staggered my senses. I forgot Tom, forgot the reason of our coming, forgot even where I was, so absorbed was I, and craned forward over the hurrying wheel, as intent as the veriest gambler present.
I was aroused from my stupor by a muttered curse, as the grey-headed man before me staggered up from his chair, and left the table with desperate eyes and stupid gait. As he rose the jewelled fingers made a slight motion, and I dropped into the vacant seat.
The bank was still winning. At our hostess' left hand rose a swelling pile of gold and silver that time after time absorbed all the smaller heaps upon the black and red spaces. Meanwhile the woman had scarcely spoken, but as the needle went round once more, slackened and stopped—this time amid deep and desperate execrations—she turned to me and said—
"Now is your time to break the bank if you wish. Play boldly; I should like to lose to so proper a man."
I looked back at Tom, who merely nodded, and put my first half-crown upon the red space marked 19. My neighbour, without seeming to notice the smallness of the sum, bent over the table and sent the wheel spinning on its errand. I, too, bent forward to watch, and as the wheel halted, saw the coin swept, with many more valuable, into the great pile.