"It belonged to my father," I answered.
"Excuse me," she said, deliberately, "that is hardly an answer to my question."
During the silence that followed, she took up the clasp again, and studied the writing. As she did so she used her right hand only; indeed, during the whole time, her left had been occupied with her tireless fan. I fancied, though I could not be certain, that it was waving slightly faster than before.
"The writing seems to be nonsense. What is this—'Moon end South—deep at point'? I can make no meaning of it. I suppose there is a meaning?"
"Not to my knowledge," said I, and immediately repented, for once more I seemed to catch that gleam in her eyes which had so baffled me when first she saw the Clasp. The curtain rose upon the third act of "Francesca," and we sat in silence, she with the Clasp lying upon her lap, I wondering by what possibility she could know anything about my father's secret. She could not, I determined. The whole history of the Golden Clasp made it impossible. And yet I repented my rashness. It was too late now, however; so, when the act was over I waited for her to speak.
"So this belonged to your father. Tell me, was he at all like you?"
"He was about my height, I should guess," said I, wondering at this new question; "but otherwise quite unlike. He was a fair man, I am dark."
"But your grandfather—was he not dark?"
"I believe so," I answered, "but really—"
"You wonder at my questions, of course. Never mind me; think me a witch, if you like. Do I not look a witch?"
Indeed she did, as she sat there. The diamonds flashed and gleamed, lighting up the awful colour of her skin until she seemed a very "Death-in-Life."
"I see that I puzzle you; but your looks, Mr. Trenoweth, are hardly complimentary. However, you are forgiven. Here, take your talisman, and guard it jealously; I thank you for showing it to me, but if I were you I should keep it secret. Shall I see you again? I suppose not. I am afraid I have made you miss some of the tragedy. You must pardon me for that, as I have waited long to see you. At any rate, there is the last act to come. Good-bye, and be careful of your talisman."
As she spoke, she shut her fan with a sharp click, and then it flashed upon me that it had never ceased its pendulous motion until that instant. It was a strange idea to strike me then, but a stranger yet succeeded. Was it that I heard a low mocking laugh within the box as I stepped out into the passage? I cannot clearly tell; perhaps it is but a fancy conjured up by later reflection on that meeting and its consequences. I only know that as I bowed and left her, the vision that I bore away was not of the gleaming gems, the yellow face, the white hair, or waving fan, but of two coal-black and impenetrable eyes.
I sought my place, and dropped into the seat beside Tom. The fourth act was beginning, so that I had time to speculate upon my interview, but could find no hope of solution. Finally, I abandoned guessing, to admire Claire. As the play went on, her acting grew more and more transcendent. Lines which I had heard from Tom's lips and scoffed at, were now fused with subtle meaning and passion. Scenes which I had condemned as awkward and heavy, became instinct with exquisite pathos. There comes a point in acting at which criticism ceases, content to wonder; this point it was clear that my love had touched. The new play was a triumphant success.
"So," said Tom, before the last act, "Claire carries a yellow fan, does she? I looked everywhere for you at first, and only caught sight of you for an instant by the merest chance. You behaved rather shabbily in giving me no chance of criticism, for I never caught a glimpse of her. I hope she admired—Hallo! she's gone!"
I followed his gaze, and saw that Box No. 7 was no longer occupied by the fan.
"I suppose you saw her off? Well, I do not admire your taste, I must confess—nor Claire's—to go when Francesca was beginning to touch her grandest height. Whew! you lovers make me blush for you."
"Tom." I said, anxious to lead him from all mention of Claire, "you must forgive me for having laughed at your play."
"Forgive you! I will forgive you if you weep during the next act; only on that condition."
How shall I describe the last act? Those who read "Francesca" in its published form can form no adequate idea of the enthusiasm in the Coliseum that night. To them it is a skeleton; then it was clothed with passionate flesh and blood, breathed, sobbed and wept in purest pathos; to me, even now, as I read it again, it is charged with the inspiration of that wonderful art, so true, so tender, that made its last act a miracle. I saw old men sob, and young men bow their heads to hide the emotion which they could not check. I saw that audience which had come to criticise, tremble and break into tumultuous weeping. Beside me, a greyheaded man was crying as any child. Yet why do I go on? No one who saw Clarissa Lambert can ever forget—no one who saw her not can ever imagine.
Tom had bowed his acknowledgments, the last flower had been flung, the last cheer had died away as we stepped out into the Strand together. The street was wrapped in the densest of November fogs. So thick was it that the lamps, the shop windows, came into sight, stared at us in ghostly weakness for a moment, and then were gone, leaving us in Egyptian gloom. I could not hope to see Claire to-night, and Tom was too modest to offer his congratulations until the morning. Both he and I were too shaken by the scene just past for many words, and outside the black fog caught and held us by the throat.
Even in the pitchy gloom I could feel that Tom's step was buoyant. He was treading already in imagination the path of love and fame. How should I have the heart to tell him? How wither the chaplet that already seemed to bind his brow?
Tom was the first to break the silence which had fallen upon us.
"Jasper, did you ever see or hear the like? Can a man help worshipping her? But for her, 'Francesca' would have been hissed. I know it, I could see it, and now, I suppose, I shall be famous.
"Famous!" continued he, soliloquising. "Three months ago I would have given the last drop of my blood for fame; and now, without Clarissa, fame will be a mockery. Do you think I might have any chance, the least chance?"
How could I answer him? The fog caught my breath as I tried to stammer a reply, and Tom, misinterpreting my want of words, read his condemnation.
"You do not? Of course, you do not; and you are right. Success has intoxicated me, I suppose. I am not used to the drink!" and he laughed a joyless laugh.
Then, with a change of mood, he caught my hat from off my head, and set his own in its place.
"We will change characters for the nonce," he said, "after the fashion of Falstaff and Prince Hal, and I will read myself a chastening discourse on the vanity of human wishes. 'Do thou stand for me, and I'll play my father.' Eh, Jasper?"
"'Well, here I am set,'" quoted I, content to humour him.
"Well, then, I know thee; thou art Thomas Loveday, a beggarly Grub Street author, i' faith, a man of literature, and wouldst set eyes upon one to whom princes fling bouquets; a low Endymion puffing a scrannel pipe, and wouldst call therewith a queen to be thy bride. Out upon thee for such monstrous folly!"
In his voice, as it came to me through the dense gloom, there rang, for all its summoned gaiety, a desperate mockery hideous to hear.
"Behold, success hath turned thy weak brain. But an hour agone enfranchised from Grub Street, thou must sing 'I'd be a butterfly.' Thou art vanity absolute, conceit beyond measure, and presumption out of all whooping. Yea, and but as a fool Pygmalion, not content with loving thine own handiwork, thou must needs fall in love with the goddess that breathed life into its stiff limbs; must yearn, not for Galatea, but for Aphrodite; not for Francesca, but for—Ah!"
What was that? I saw a figure start up as if from below our feet, and Tom's hand go up to his breast. There was a scuffle, a curse, and as I dashed forward, a dull, dim gleam—and Tom, with a groan, sank back into my arms.
That was all. A moment, and all had happened. Yet not all; for as I caught the body of my friend, and saw his face turn ashy white in the gloom, I saw also, saw unmistakably framed for an instant in the blackness of the fog, a face I knew; a face I should know until death robbed my eyes of sight and my brain of remembrance—the face of Simon Colliver.
A moment, and before I could pursue, before I could even shout or utter its name, it had faded into the darkness, and was gone.
TELLS HOW CLAIRE WENT TO THE PLAY; AND HOW SHE SAW THE GOLDEN CLASP.
Tom was dying. His depositions had been taken and signed with his failing hand; the surgeon had given his judgment, and my friend was lying upon his bed, face to face with the supreme struggle.
The knife had missed his heart by little more than an inch, but the inward bleeding was killing him and there was no hope. He knew it, and though the reason of that cowardly blow was a mystery to him, he asked few questions, but faced his fate with the old boyish pluck. His eyes as they turned to mine were lit with the old boyish love.
Once only since his evidence was taken had his lips moved, and then to murmur her name. I had sent for her: a short note with only the words "Tom is dying and wants to speak with you." So, while we waited, I sat holding my friend's hand and busy with my own black thoughts.
I knew that he had received the blow meant for me, and that the secret of this too, as well as that other assault in the gambling-den, hung on the Golden Clasp and the Great Ruby. Whatever that secret was, the yellow woman knew of it, and held it beneath the glitter of her awful eyes. She it was that had directed the murderous knife in the hands of Simon Colliver. Bitterly I cursed the folly which had prompted my rash words in the theatre, and so sacrificed my friend. With what passion, even in my despair, I thanked Heaven that the act which led to Colliver's mistake had been Tom's and not mine! Yet, what consolation was it? It was I, not he, that should be lying there. He had given his life for his friend—a friend who had already robbed him of his love. O false and traitorous friend!
In my humiliation I would have taken my hand from his, but a feeble pressure and a look of faint reproach restrained me. So he lay there and I sat beside him, and both counted the moments until Claire should come—or death.
A knock at the door outside. Tom heard it and in his eyes shone a light of ineffable joy. In answer to his look I dropped his hand and went to meet her.
"Claire, how can I thank you for this speed?"
"How did it happen?"
"Murdered!" said I. "Foully struck down last night as he left the theatre."
Her eyes looked for a moment as though they would have questioned me further, but she simply asked—
"Does he want to see me?"
"When he heard he was to die he asked for you. Claire, if you only knew how he longs to see you; had you only seen his eyes when he heard you come! You know why—"
She nodded gravely.
"I suppose," she said slowly, "we had better say nothing of—"
"Nothing," I answered; "it is better so. If there be any knowledge beyond the grave he will know all soon."
Claire was silent.
"Yes," she assented at length, "it is better so. Take me to him."
I drew back as Claire approached the bed, dreading to meet Tom's eyes; but I saw them welcome her in a flash of thankful rapture, then slowly close as though unable wholly to bear this glad vision.
Altogether lovely she was as she bent and lifted his nerveless hand, with the light of purest compassion on her face.
"You have come then," said the dying man. "God bless you for that!"
"I am come, and oh! I am so very, very sorry."
"I saw Jasper write and knew he had sent, but I hardly dared to hope. I am—very weak—and am going—fast."
For answer, a tear of infinite pity dropped on the white hand.
"Don't weep—I can't bear to see you weeping. It is all for the best. I can see that I have had hopes and visions, but I should never have attained them—never. Now I shall not have to strive. Better so—better so."
For a moment or two the lips moved inaudibly; then they spoke again—
"It was so good of you—to come; I was afraid—afraid—but you are good. You saved my play last night, but you cannot save—me." A wan smile played over the white face and was gone.
"Better so, for I can speak now and be pardoned. Do you know why I sent for you? I wanted to tell something—before I died. Do not be angry—I shall be dead soon, and in the grave, they say, there is no knowledge. Clarissa! oh, pity me—pity me, if I speak!"
The eyes looked up imploringly and met their pardon.
"I have loved you—yes, loved you. Can you forgive? It need not distress—you—now. It was mad—mad—but I loved you. Jasper, come here."
I stepped to the bed.
"Tell her I loved her, and ask her—to forgive me. Tell her I knew it was hopeless. Tell her so, Jasper."
Powerless to meet those trustful eyes, weary with the anguish of my remorse, I stood there helpless.
"Jasper is too much—upset just now to speak. Never mind, he will tell you later. He is in love himself. I have never seen her, but I hope he may be happier than I. Forgive me for saying that. I am happy now—happy now.
"You do not know Jasper," continued the dying man after a pause; "but he saw you last night—and admired—how could he help it? I hope you will be friends—for my sake. Jasper is my only friend."
There was a grey shadow on his face now—the shadow of death. Tom must have felt it draw near, for suddenly raising himself upon his elbow, he cried—
"Ah, I was selfish—I did not think. They are waiting at the theatre—go to them. You will act your best—for my sake. Forget what I have said, if you cannot forgive."
"Oh, why will you think that?"
"You do forgive? Oh, God bless you, God bless you for it! Clarissa, if that be so, grant one thing more of your infinite mercy. Kiss me once—once only—on the lips. I shall die happier so. Will you—can you—do this?"
The film was gathering fast upon those eyes once so full of laughter; but through it they gazed in passionate appeal. For answer, my love bent gravely over the bed and with her lips met his; then, still clasping his hand, sank on her knees beside the bed.
"Thank God! My love—oh, let me call you that—you cannot—help—my loving you. Do not pray—I am happy now and—they are waiting for you."
Slowly Claire arose to her feet and stood waiting for his last word—
"They are waiting—waiting. Good-bye, Jasper—old friend—and Clarissa—Clarissa—my love—they are waiting—I cannot come—Clar—"
Slowly Claire bent and once more touched his lips, then without a word passed slowly out. As she went Death entered and found on its victim's face a changeless, rapturous smile.
So "Francesca" was played a second time and, as the papers said next morning, with even more perfect art and amid more awed enthusiasm than on the first night. But as the piece went on, a rumour passed through the house that its young author was dead—suddenly and mysteriously dead while the dawn of his fame was yet breaking—struck down, some said, outside the theatre by a rival, while others whispered that he had taken poison, but none knew for certain. Only, as Claire passed from one heart-shaking scene to another, the rumour grew and grew, so that when the curtain fell the audience parted in awed and murmured speculations.
And all the while I was kneeling beside the body of my murdered friend.
A week had passed and I was standing with Claire beside Tom's grave. We had met and spoken at the funeral, but some restraint had lain upon our tongues. For myself, I was still as one who had sold his brother for a price, and Claire had forborne from questioning my grief.
The coroner's jury had brought in a verdict of "Murder by a certain person unknown," and now the police were occupied in following such clues as I could give them. All the daily papers assigned robbery as the motive, and the disappearance of Tom's watch-chain gave plausibility to the theory. But I knew too well why that chain had disappeared, and even in my grief found consolation in the thought of Colliver's impotent rage when he should come to examine his prize. I had described the face and figure of my enemy and had even identified him with the long-missing sailor Georgio Rhodojani, so that they promised to lay hands on him in a very short space. But the public knew nothing of this. The only effect of the newspapers' version of the murder was to send the town crowding in greater numbers than ever to see the dead man's play.
Since the first night of "Francesca," Claire and I had only met by Tom's bedside and at his funeral. But as I entered the gloomy cemetery that afternoon I spied a figure draped in black beside the yet unsettled mound, and as I drew near knew it to be Claire.
So we stood there facing one another for a full minute, at a loss for words. A wreath of immortelles lay upon the grave. In my heart I thanked her for the gift, but could not speak. It seemed as though the hillock that parted us were some impassable barrier to words. Had I but guessed the truth I should have known that, unseen and unsuspected, across that foot or two of turf was stretched a gulf we were never more to cross: between our lives lay the body of my friend; and not his only, but many a pallid corpse that with its mute lips cursed our loves.
Presently Claire raised her head and spoke.
"Jasper, you have much to forgive me, and I hardly dare ask your forgiveness. It is too late to ask forgiveness of a dead man, but could he hear now I would entreat him to pardon the folly that wrought this cruel mistake."
"Claire, you could not know. How was it possible to guess?"
"That is true, but it is no less cruel. And I deceived you. Can you ever forgive?"
"Forgive! forgive what? That I found my love peerless among women? Oh, Claire, Claire, 'forgive'?"
"Yes; what matters it that for the moment I have what is called fame? I deceived you—yet, believe me, it was only because I thought to make the surprise more pleasant. I thought—but it is too late. Only believe I had no other thought, no other wish. My poor scheme seemed so harmless at first: then as the days went on I began to doubt. But until you told me, as we stood beside the river, of— him, I never guessed;—oh, believe me, I never guessed!"
"Love, do not accuse yourself in this way. It hurts me to hear you speak so. If there was any fault it was mine; but the Fates blinded us. If you had known Tom, you would know that he would forgive could he hear us now. For me, Claire, what have I to pardon?"
Claire did not answer for a moment. There was still a trouble in her face, as though something yet remained to be said and she had not the courage to utter it.
"Jasper, there is something besides, which you have to pardon if you can."
"Do you remember what I asked you that night, when you first told me about him?"
"You asked me a foolish question, if I remember rightly. You asked if I could ever cease to love you."
"No, not foolish; I really meant it seriously, and I believed you when you answered me. Are you of the same mind now? Believe me, I am not asking lightly."
"I answer you as I answered you then: 'Love is strong as death.' My love, put away these thoughts and be sure that I love you as my own soul."
"But perhaps, even so, you might be so angry that—Oh, Jasper, how can I tell you?"
"Tell me all, Claire."
"I told you I was called, or that they called me Claire. Were you not surprised when you saw my name as Clarissa Lambert?"
"Is that all?" I cried. "Why, of course, I knew how common it is for actresses to take another name. I was even glad of it; for the name I know, your own name, is now a secret, and all the sweeter so. All the world admires Clarissa Lambert, but I alone love Claire Luttrell, and know that Claire Luttrell loves me."
"But that is not all," she expostulated, whilst the trouble in her eyes grew deeper. "Oh, why will you make it so hard for me to explain? I never thought, when I told you so carelessly on that night when we met for the first time, that you would grow to care for me at all. And it was the same afterwards, when I introduced you to my mother; I gave you the name Luttrell, without ever dreaming—"
"Was Luttrell not your mother's name?" I asked, perplexed.
"That is the name by which she is always called now; and I am always called Claire; in fact, it is my name, but I have another, and I ought to have told you."
"Why, as Claire I know you, and as Claire I shall always love you. What does it matter if your real name be Lambert? You will change it, love, soon, I trust."
But my poor little jest woke no mirth in her eyes.
"No, it is not Lambert. That is only the name I took when I went on the stage. Nor am I called Luttrell. It is a sad story; but let me tell it now, and put an end to all deception. I meant to do so long ago; but lately I thought I would wait until after you had seen me on the stage; I thought I would explain all together, not knowing that he—but it has all gone wrong. Jasper, I know you will pity poor mother, even though she had allowed you to be deceived. She has been so unhappy. But let me tell it first, and then you will judge. She calls herself Luttrell to avoid persecution; to avoid a man who is—"
"A villain, I am sure."
"A villain, yes; but worse. He is her husband; not my father, but a second husband. My father died when I was quite a little child, and she married again. Ever since that day she has been miserable. I remember her face—oh, so well! when she first discovered the real character of the man. For years she suffered—we were abroad then— until at last she could bear it no longer, so she fled—fled back to England, and took me with her. I think, but I am not sure, that her husband did not dare to follow her to England, because he had done something against the laws. I only guess this, for I never dare to ask mother about him. I did so once, and shall never forget the look of terror that came into her eyes. I only guess he has some strong reason for avoiding England, for I remember we went abroad hastily, almost directly after that night when mother first discovered that she had been deceived. However that may be, we came to England, mother and I, and changed our name to Luttrell, which was her maiden name. After this, our life became one perpetual dread of discovery. We were miserably poor, of course, and I was unable to do anything to help for many years. Mother was so careful; why, she even called me by my second name, so desperately anxious was she to hide all traces from that man. Then suddenly we were discovered—not by him, but by his mother, whom he set to search for us, and she—for she was not wholly bad—promised to make my fortune on the single condition that half my earnings were sent to him. Otherwise, she threatened that mother should have no rest. What could I do? It was the only way to save ourselves. Well, I promised to go upon the stage, for this woman fancied she discovered some talent in me. Why, Jasper, how strangely you are looking!"
"Tell me—tell me," I cried, "who is this woman?"
"You ought to know that, for you were in the box with her during most of the first night of 'Francesca.'"
A horrible, paralysing dread had seized me.
"Her name, and his? Quick—tell me, for God's sake!"
"Colliver. He is called Simon Colliver. But, Jasper, what is it? What—"
I took the chain and Golden Clasp and handed them to Claire without speech.
"Why, what is this?" she cried. "He has a piece exactly like this, the fellow to it; I remember seeing it when I was quite small. Oh, speak! what new mystery, what new trouble is this?"
"Claire, Colliver is here in London, or was but a week ago."
"Yes, Claire; and it was he that murdered Thomas Loveday."
"Murdered Thomas Loveday! I do not understand." She had turned a deathly white, and spread out her hands as if for support. "Tell me—"
"Yes, Claire," I said, as I stepped to her, and put my arm about her; "it is truth, as I stand here. Colliver, your mother's husband, foully murdered my innocent friend for the sake of that piece of gold; and more, Simon Colliver, for the sake of this same accursed token, murdered my father!"
She shook off my arm, and stood facing me there, by Tom's grave, with a look of utter horror that froze my blood.
"Yes, my father; or stay, I am wrong. Though Colliver prompted, his was not the hand that did the deed. That he left to a poor wretch whom he afterwards slew himself—one Railton—John Railton."
"Why, Claire, Claire! What is it? Speak!"
"I am Janet Railton!"
TELLS HOW THE CURTAIN FELL UPON "FRANCESCA: A TRAGEDY."
For a moment I staggered back as though buffeted in the face, then, as our eyes met and read in each other the desperate truth, I sprang forward just in time to catch her as she fell. Blindly, as if in some hideous trance, reeling and stumbling over the graves, I carried her in my arms to the cemetery gate and stood there panting and bewildered.
Cold and white as marble she lay in my arms, so that for one terrible moment I thought her dead. "Better so," my heart had cried, and then I laughed aloud (God forgive me!) at the utter cruelty of it all. But she was not dead. As I watched the lovely ashen face, the slow blood came trickling back and throbbed faintly at her temples, the light breath flickered and went and came once more. Feebly and with wonder the dark eyes opened to the light of day, then closed again as the lips parted in a moaning whisper.
"Claire!" I cried, and my voice seemed to come from far away, so hollow and unnatural was it, "I must take you to your home; are you well enough to go?"
I had laid her on the stone upon which the bearers were used to set down the coffins when weary. Scarcely a week ago, poor Tom's corpse had rested for a moment upon this grim stone. As I bent to catch the answer, and saw how like to death her face was, I thought how well it were for both of us, should we be resting there so together; not leaving the acre of the dead, but entering it as rightful heirs of its oblivion.
After a while, as I repeated my question, the lips again parted and I heard.
I looked down the road. The cemetery lay far out in one of the northern suburbs, and just now the neighbourhood seemed utterly deserted. By good chance, however, I spied an old four-wheeler crawling along in the distance. I ran after it, hailed it, brought it back, and with the help of the wondering driver, placed my love inside; then I gave the man the address, and bidding him drive with all speed, sprang in beside Claire.
Still faint, she was lying back against the cushion. The cab crawled along at a snail's pace, but long as the journey was, it was passed in utter silence. She never opened her eyes, and as for me, what comfortable words could I speak? Yet as I saw the soft rise and fall of her breast, I longed for words, Heaven knows how madly! But none came, and in silence we drew up at length before a modest doorway in Old Kensington.
Here Claire summoned all her strength lest her mother should be frightened. Still keeping her eyes averted, she stepped as bravely as she could from the cab, and laid her hand upon the door-handle.
I made as if to follow.
"No, no," she said hastily, "leave me to myself—I will write to-morrow and perhaps see you; but, oh, pray, not to-day!"
Before I could answer she had passed into the house.
Twenty-four hours had passed and left me as they found me, in torture. Despite my doubt, I swore she should not cast me off; then knelt and prayed as I had never prayed before, that Heaven would deny some of its cruelty to my darling. In the abandonment of my supplication, I was ready to fling the secret from me and forgive all, to forgive my father's murderer, my life-long enemy, and let him go unsought, rather than give up Claire. Yet as I prayed, my entreaties and my tears went up to no compassionate God, but beat themselves upon the adamantine face of Dead Man's Rock that still rose inexorable between me and Heaven.
That night the crowd that gathered in the Coliseum to see the new play, went away angry and disappointed; for Clarissa Lambert was not acting. Another actress took her part—but how differently! And all the while she, for whose sake they had come, was on her knees wrestling with a grimmer tragedy than "Francesca," with no other audience than the angels of pity.
Twenty-four hours had passed, and found me hastening towards Old Kensington; for in my pocket lay a note bearing only the words "Come at 3.30—Claire," and on my heart rested a load of suspense unbearable. For many minutes beforehand, I paced up and down outside the house in an agony, and as my watch pointed to the half-hour, knocked and was admitted.
Mrs. Luttrell met me in the passage. She seemed most terribly white and worn, so that I was astonished when she simply said, "Claire is slightly unwell, and in fact could not act last night, but she wishes to see you for some reason."
Wondering why Claire's mother should look so strangely if she guessed nothing of what had happened, but supposing illness to be the reason, I stopped for an instant to ask.
"Am I pale?" she answered. "It is nothing—nothing—do not take any notice of it. I am rather weaker than usual to-day, that is all—a mere nothing. You will find Claire in the drawing-room there." And so she left me.
I knocked at the drawing-room door, and hearing a faint voice inside, entered. As I did so, Claire rose to meet me. She was very pale, and the dark circles around her eyes told of a long vigil; but her manner at first was composed and even cold.
"Claire!" I cried, and stretched out my hands.
"Not yet," she said, and motioned me to a chair. "I sent for you because I have been thinking of—of—what happened yesterday, and I want you to tell me all; the whole story from beginning to end."
"There is no 'but' in the case, Jasper. I am Janet Railton, and you say that my father killed yours. Tell me how it was."
Her manner was so calm that I hesitated at first, bewildered. Then, finding that she waited for me to speak, I sat down facing her and began my story.
I told it through, without suppression or concealment, from the time when my father started to seek the treasure, down to the cowardly blow that had taken my friend's life. During the whole narrative she never took her eyes from my face for more than a moment. Her very lips were bloodless, but her manner was as quiet as though I were reading her some story of people who had never lived. Once only she interrupted me. I was repeating the conversation between her father and Simon Colliver upon Dead Man's Rock.
"You are quite sure," she asked, "of the words? You are positive he said, 'Captain, it was your knife'?"
"Certain," I answered sadly.
"You are giving the very words they both used?"
"As well as I can remember; and I have cause for a good memory."
"Go on," she replied simply.
So I unrolled the whole chronicle of our unhappy fates, and even read to her Lucy Railton's letter which I had brought with me. Then, as I ceased, for full a minute we sat in absolute silence, reading each other's gaze.
"Let me see the letter," she said, and held out her hand for it.
I gave it to her. She read it slowly through and handed it back.
"Yes, it is my mother's letter," she said, slowly.
Then again silence fell upon us. I could hear the clock tick slowly on the mantelpiece, and the beating of my own heart that raced and outstripped it. That was all; until at length the slow, measured footfall of the timepiece grew maddening to hear; it seemed a symbol of the unrelenting doom pursuing us, and I longed to rise and break it to atoms.
I could stand it no longer.
"Claire, tell me that this will not—cannot alter you—that you are mine yet, as you were before."
"This is impossible," she said, very gravely and quietly.
"Impossible? Oh, no, no, do not say that! You cannot, you must not say that!"
"Yes, Jasper," she repeated, and her face was pallid as snow; "it is impossible."
But as I heard my doom, I arose and fought it with blind despair.
"Claire, you do not know what you are saying. You love me, Claire; you have told me so, and I love you as my very soul. Surely, then, you will not say this thing. How were we to know? How could you have told? Oh, Claire! is it that you do not love me?"
Her eyes were full of infinite compassion and tenderness, but her lips were firm and cold.
"You know that I love you."
"Then, oh, my love! how can this come between us? What does it matter that our fathers fought and killed each other, if only we love? Surely, surely Heaven cannot fix the seal of this crime upon us for ever? Speak, Claire, and tell me that you will be mine in spite of all!"
"It cannot be," she answered, very gently.
"Cannot be!" I echoed. "Then I was right, and you do not love, but fancied that you did for a while. Love, love, was that fair? No power on earth—no, nor in heaven—should have made me cast you off so."
My rage died out before the mute reproach of those lovely eyes. I caught the white hand.
"Forgive me, Claire; I was desperate, and knew not what I was saying. I know you love me—you have said so, and you are truth itself; truth and all goodness. But if you have loved, then you can love me still. Remember our text, Claire, 'Love is strong as death.' Strong as death, and can it be overcome so easily?"
She was trembling terribly, and from the little hand within mine I could feel her agitation. But though the soft eyes spoke appealingly as they were raised in answer, I could see, behind all their anguish, an immutable resolve.
"No, Jasper; it can never be—never. Do you think I am not suffering—that it is nothing to me to lose you? Try to think better of me. Oh, Jasper, it is hard indeed for me, and—I love you so."
"No, no," she went on; "do not make the task harder for me. Why can you not curse me? It would be easier then. Why can you not hate me as you ought? Oh, if you would but strike me and go, I could better bear this hour!"
There was such abandonment of entreaty in her tones that my heart bled for her; yet I could only answer—
"Claire, I will not give you up; not though you went on your knees and implored it. Death alone can divide us now; and even death will never kill my love."
"Death!" she answered. "Think, then, that I am dead; think of me as under the mould. Ah, love, hearts do not break so easily. You would grieve at first, but in a little while I should be forgotten."
"Forgive me, love; not forgotten. I wronged you when I said the word. Believe me, Jasper, that if there be any gleam of day in the blackness that surrounds me it is the thought that you so love me; and yet it would have been far easier otherwise—far easier."
Little by little my hope was slipping from me; but still I strove with her as a man battles for his life. I raved, protested, called earth and heaven to witness her cruelty; but all in vain.
"It would be a sin—a horrible sin!" she kept saying. "God would never forgive it. No, no; do not try to persuade me—it is horrible!" and she shuddered.
Utterly beaten at last by her obstinacy, I said—
"I will leave you now to think it over. Let me call again and hear that you repent."
"No, love; we must never meet again. This must be our last good-bye. Stay!" and she smiled for the first time since that meeting in the cemetery. "Come to 'Francesca' to-night; I am going to act."
"Yes. One must live, you see, even though one suffers. See, I have a ticket for you—for a box. You will come? Promise me."
"Yes, promise me. Do me this last favour; I shall never ask another."
I took the card in silence.
"And now," she said, "you may kiss me. Kiss me on the lips for the last time, and may God bless you, my love."
Quite calmly and gently she lifted her lips to mine, and on her face was the glory of unutterable tenderness.
"Claire! My love, my love!" My arms were round her, her whole form yielded helplessly to mine, and as our lips met in that one passionate, shuddering caress, sank on my breast.
"You will not leave me?" I cried.
And through her sobs came the answer—
"Yes, yes; it must be, it must be."
Then drawing herself up, she held out her hand and said—
"To-night, remember, and so—farewell."
And so, in the fading light of that grey December afternoon I left her standing there.
Mad and distraught with the passion of that parting, I sat that evening in the shadow of my box and waited for the curtain to rise upon "Francesca." The Coliseum was crowded to the roof, for it was known that Clarissa Lambert's illness had been merely a slight indisposition, and to-night she would again be acting. I was too busy with my own hard thoughts to pay much attention at first, but I noticed that my box was the one nearest to the stage, in the tier next above it. So that once more I should hear my darling's voice, and see her form close to me. Once or twice I vaguely scanned the audience. The boxes opposite were full; but, of course, I could see nothing of my own side of the theatre. After a moment's listless glance, I leaned back in the shadow and waited.
I do not know who composed the overture. It is haunted by one exquisite air, repeated, fading into variations, then rising once more only to sink into the tender sorrow of a minor key. I have heard it but twice in my life, but the music of it is with me to this day. Then, as I heard it, it carried me back to the hour when Tom and I sat expectant in this same theatre, he trembling for his play's success, I for the sight of my love. Poor Tom! The sad melody wailed upwards as though it were the voice of the wind playing about his grave, every note breathing pathos or suspiring in tremulous anguish. Poor Tom! Yet your love was happier than mine; better to die with Claire's kiss warm upon the lips than to live with but the memory of it.
The throbbing music had ended, and the play began. As before, the audience were without enthusiasm at first, but to-night they knew they had but to wait, and they did so patiently; so that when at last Claire's voice died softly away at the close of her opening song, the hushed house was suddenly shaken to its roof with the storm and tumult of applause.
There she stood, serene and glowing, as one that had never known pain. My very eyes doubted. On her face was no sign of suffering, no trace of a tear. Was she, then, utterly without heart? In my memory I retraced the scene of that afternoon, and all my reason acquitted her. Yet, as she stood there in her glorious epiphany, illumined with the blazing lights, and radiant in the joy and freshness of youth, I could have doubted whether, after all, Clarissa Lambert and Claire Luttrell were one and the same.
There was one thing which I did not fail, however, to note as strange. She did not once glance in the direction of my box, but kept her eyes steadily averted. And it then suddenly dawned upon me that she must be playing with a purpose; but what that purpose was I could not guess.
Whatever it was, she was acting magnificently and had for the present completely surrendered herself to her art. Grand as that art had been on the first night of "Francesca," the power of that performance was utterly eclipsed to-night. Once between the acts I heard two voices in the passage outside my box—
"What do you think of it?" said the first.
"What can I?" answered the other. "And how can I tell you? It is altogether above words."
He was right. It was not so much admiration as awe and worship that held the house that night. I have heard a man say since that he wonders how the play could ever have raised anything beyond a laugh. He should have heard the sobs that every now and then would break uncontrollably forth, even whilst Claire was speaking. He should have felt the hush that followed every scene before the audience could recollect itself and pay its thunderous tribute.
Still she never looked towards me, though all the while my eyes were following my lost love. Her purpose—and somehow in my heart I grew more and more convinced that some purpose lay beneath this transcendent display—was waiting for its accomplishment, and in the ringing triumph of her voice I felt it coming nearer—nearer—until at last it came.
The tragedy was nearly over. Francesca had dismissed her old lover and his new bride from their captivity and was now left alone upon the stage. The last expectant hush had fallen upon the house. Then she stepped slowly forward in the dead silence, and as she spoke the opening lines, for the first time our eyes met.
"Here then all ends:—all love, all hate, all vows, All vain reproaches. Aye, 'tis better so. So shall he best forgive and I forget, Who else had chained him to a life-long curse, Who else had sought forgiveness, given in vain While life remained that made forgiveness dear. Far better to release him—loving more Now love denies its love and he is free, Than should it by enjoyment wreck his joy. Blighting his life for whom alone I lived.
"No, no. As God is just, it could not be. Yet, oh, my love, be happy in the days I may not share, with her whose present lips Usurp the rights of my lost sovranty. I would not have thee think—save now and then As in a dream that is not all a dream— On her whose love was sunshine for an hour, Then died or e'er its beams could blast thy life. Be happy and forget what might have been, Forget my dear embraces in her arms, My lips in hers, my children in her sons, While I— Dear love, it is not hard to die Now once the path is plain. See, I accept And step as gladly to the sacrifice As any maid upon her bridal morn— One little stroke—one tiny touch of pain And I am quit of pain for evermore. It needs no bravery. Wert thou here to see, I would not have thee weep, but look—one stroke, And thus—"
What was that shriek far back there in the house? What was that at sight of which the audience rose white and aghast from their seats? What was it that made Sebastian as he entered rush suddenly forward and fall with awful cry before Francesca's body? What was that trickling down the folds of her white dress? Blood?
Yes, blood! In an instant I put my hand upon the cushion of the box, vaulted down to the stage and was kneeling beside my dying love. But as the clamorous bell rang down the curtain, I heard above its noise a light and silvery laugh, and looking up saw in the box next to mine the coal-black devilish eyes of the yellow woman.
Then the curtain fell.
TELLS HOW TWO VOICES LED ME TO BOARD A SCHOONER; AND WHAT BEFELL THERE.
She died without speech. Only, as I knelt beside her and strove to staunch that cruel stream of blood, her beautiful eyes sought mine in utter love and, as the last agony shook her frame, strove to rend the filmy veil of death and speak to me still. Then, with one long, contented sigh, my love was dead. It was scarcely a minute before all was over. I pressed one last kiss upon the yet warm lips, tenderly drew her white mantle across the pallid face, and staggered from the theatre.
I had not raved or protested as I had done that same afternoon. Fate had no power to make me feel now; the point of anguish was passed, and in its place succeeded a numb stupidity more terrible by far, though far more blessed.
My love was dead. Then I was dead for any sensibility to suffering that I possessed. Hatless and cloak-less I stepped out into the freezing night air, and regardless of the curious looks of the passing throng I turned and walked rapidly westward up the Strand. There was a large and eager crowd outside the Coliseum, for already the news was spreading; but something in my face made them give room, and I passed through them as a man in a trance.
The white orb of the moon was high in heaven; the frozen pavement sounded hollow under-foot; the long street stood out, for all its yellow gas-light, white and distinct against the clear air; but I marked nothing of this. I went westward because my home lay westward, and some instinct took my hurrying feet thither. I had no purpose, no sensation. For aught I knew, that night London might have been a city of the dead.
Suddenly I halted beneath a lamp-post and began dimly to think. My love was dead:—that was the one fact that filled my thoughts at first, and so I strove to image it upon my brain, but could not. But as I stood there feebly struggling with the thought another took its place. Why should I live? Of course not; better end it all at once—and possessed with this idea I started off once more.
By degrees, as I walked, a plan shaped itself before me. I would go home, get my grandfather's key, together with the tin box containing my father's Journal, and then make for the river. That would be an easy death, and I could sink for ever, before I perished, all trace of the black secret which had pursued my life. I and the mystery would end together—so best. Then, without pain, almost with ghastly merriment, I thought that this was the same river which had murmured so sweetly to my love. Well, no doubt its voice would be just as musical over my grave. The same river:—but nearer the sea now— nearer the infinite sea.
As I reflected, the idea took yet stronger possession of me. Yes, it was in all respects the best. The curse should end now. "Even as the Heart of the Ruby is Blood and its Eyes a Flaming Fire, so shall it be for them that would possess it: Fire shall be their portion and Blood their inheritance for ever." For ever? No: the river should wash the blood away and quench the fire. Then arose another text and hammered at the door of my remembrance. "Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it." "Many waters"—"many waters":—the words whispered appealingly, invitingly, in my ears. "Many waters." My feet beat a tune to the words.
I reached my lodgings, ran upstairs, took out the key and the tin box, and descended again into the hall. My landlord was slipping down the latch. He stared at seeing me.
"Do not latch the door just yet: I am going out again," I said simply.
"Going out! I thought, sir, it was you as just now come in."
"Yes, but I must go out again:—it is important."
He evidently thought me mad; and so indeed I was.
"What, sir, in that dress? You've got no hat—no—"
I had forgotten. "True," I said; "get me a hat and coat."
He stared and then ran upstairs for them. Returning he said, "I have got you these, sir; but I can't find them as you usually wears."
"Those will do," I answered. "I must have left the others at the theatre."
This reduced him to utter speechlessness. Mutely he helped me to don the cloak over my thin evening dress. I slipped the tin box and the key into the pockets. As I stepped out once more into the night, my landlord found his speech.
"When will you be back, sir?"
The question startled me for a moment; for a second or two I hesitated.
"I asked because you have no latch-key, as I suppose you left it in your other coat. So that—"
"It does not matter," I answered. "Do not sit up. I shall not be back before morning;" and with that I left him still standing at the door, and listening to my footsteps as they hurried down the street.
"Before morning!" Before morning I should be in another world, if there were another world. And then it struck me that Claire and I might meet. She had taken her own life and so should I. But no, no—Heaven would forgive her that; it could not condemn my saint to the pit where I should lie: it could not be so kindly cruel; and then I laughed a loud and bitter laugh.
Still in my dull stupor I found myself nearing the river. I have not mentioned it before, but I must explain now, that during the summer I had purchased a boat, in which my Claire and I were used to row idly between Streatley and Pangbourne, or whithersoever love guided our oars. This boat, with the approach of winter, I had caused to be brought down the river and had housed in a waterman's shed just above Westminster, until the return of spring should bring back once more the happy days of its employment.
In my heart I blessed the chance that had stored it ready to my hand.
Stumbling through dark and tortuous streets where the moon's frosty brilliance was almost completely hidden, I came at last to the waterman's door and knocked. He was in bed and for some time my summons was in vain. At last I heard a sound in the room above, the window was let down and a sulky voice said, "Who's there?"
"Is that you, Bagnell?" I answered. "Come down. It is I, Mr. Trenoweth, and I want you."
There was a low cursing, a long pause broken by a muttered dispute upstairs, and then the street door opened and Bagnell appeared with a lantern.
"Bagnell, I want my boat."
"To-night, sir? And at this hour?"
"Yes, to-night. I want it particularly."
"But it is put away behind a dozen others, and can't be got."
"Never mind. I will help if you want assistance, but I must have it."
Bagnell looked at me for a minute and I could see that he was cursing under his breath.
"Is it serious, sir? You're not—"
"I am not drunk, if that is what you mean, but perfectly serious, and I must have my boat."
"Won't another do as well?"
"No, it will not." I felt in my pockets and found two sovereigns and a few shillings. "Look here," I said, "I will give you two pounds if you get this boat out for me."
This conquered his reluctance. He stared for a moment as I mentioned the amount, and then hastily deciding that I was stark mad, but that it was none of his business, put on his hat and led the way down to his boat-yard.
Stumbling in the uncertain light over innumerable timbers, spars, and old oars, we reached the shed at length and together managed, after much delay, to get out the light boat and let her down to the water. I gave him the two sovereigns as well as the few shillings that remained in my pocket, and as I descended, reflected grimly that after all they were better in his possession; the man who should find my body would have so much the less spoil. We had scarcely spoken whilst we were getting the boat out, and what words we used were uttered in that whisper which night always enforces; but as I clambered down (for the tide was now far out) and Bagnell passed down the sculls, he asked—
"When will you be back, sir?"
The same question! I gave it the same answer. "Not before morning," I said, and with a few strokes was out upon the tide and pulling down the river. I saw him standing there above in the moonlight, still wondering, until he faded in the dim haze behind. My boat was a light Thames dingey, so that although I felt the tide running up against me, it nevertheless made fair progress. What decided me to pull against the tide rather than float quietly upwards I do not know to this day. So deadened and vague was all my thought, that it probably never occurred to me to correct the direction in which the first few strokes had taken me. I was conscious of nothing but a row of lights gliding past me on either hand, of here and there a tower or tall building, that stood up for an instant against the sky and then swam slowly out of sight, of the creaking of my sculls in the ungreased rowlocks, and, above all, the white shimmer of the moon following my boat as it swung downwards.
I remember now that, in a childish way, I tried to escape this persistent brilliance that still clung to my boat's side with every stroke I took; that somehow a dull triumph possessed me when for a moment I slipped beneath the shadow of a bridge, or crept behind a black and silent hull. All this I can recall now, and wonder at the trivial nature of the thought. Then I caught the scent of white rose, and fell to wondering how it came there. There had been the same scent in the drawing-room that afternoon, I remembered, when Claire had said good-bye for ever. How had it followed me? After this I set myself aimlessly to count the lights that passed, lost count, and began again. And all the time the white glimmer hung at my side.
I was still wrapped up in my cloak, though the cape was flung back to give my arms free play. Rowing so, I must quickly have been warm; but I felt it no more than I had felt the cold as I walked home from the theatre. My boat was creeping along the Middlesex shore, by the old Temple stairs, and presently threaded its way through more crowded channels, and passed under the blackness of London Bridge.
How far below this I went, I cannot clearly call to mind; of distance, as well as of time, I had lost all calculation. I recollect making a circuit to avoid the press of boats waiting for the early dawn by Billingsgate Market, and have a vision of the White Tower against the heavens. But my next impression of any clearness is that of rowing under the shadow of a black three-masted schooner that lay close under shore, tilted over on her port side in the low water. As my dingey floated out again from beneath the overhanging hull, I looked up and saw the words, Water-Witch, painted in white upon her pitch-dark bows.
By this time I was among the tiers of shipping. I looked back over my shoulder, and saw their countless masts looming up as far as eye could see in the dim light, and their lamps flickering and wavering upon the water. I rowed about a score of strokes, and then stopped. Why go further? This place would serve as well as any other. No one was likely to hear my splash as I went overboard, and even if heard it would not be interpreted. I was still near enough to the Middlesex bank to be out of the broad moonlight that lit up the middle of the river. I took the tin box out of my cloak and stowed it for a moment in the stern. I would sink it with the key before I flung myself in. So, pulling the key out of the other pocket, I took off the cloak, then my dress-coat and waistcoat, folded them carefully, and placed them on the stern seat. This done, I slipped the key into one pocket of my trousers, my watch and chain into the other. I would do all quietly and in order, I reflected. I was silently kicking off my shoes, when a thought struck me. In my last struggles it was possible that the desire of life would master me, and almost unconsciously I might take to swimming. In the old days at Lizard Town swimming had been as natural to me as walking, and I had no doubt that as soon as in the water I should begin to strike out. Could I count upon determination enough to withhold my arms and let myself slowly drown?
Here was a difficulty; but I resolved to make everything sure. I took my handkerchief out of the coat pocket, and bent down to tie my feet firmly together. All this I did quite calmly and mechanically. As far as one can be certain of anything at this distance of time, I am certain of this, that no thought of hesitation came into my head. It was not that I overcame any doubts; they never occurred to me.
I was stooping down, and had already bound the handkerchief once around my ankles, when my boat grated softly against something. I looked up, and saw once more above me a dark ship's hull, and right above my head the white letters, Water-Witch.
This would never do. My boat had drifted up the river again with the tide, stern foremost, but a little aslant, and had run against the warp by the schooner's bows. I must pull out again, for otherwise the people on board would hear me. I pushed gently off from the warp and took the sculls, when suddenly I heard voices back towards the stern.
My first impulse was to get away with all speed, and I had already taken half a stroke, when something caused my hands to drop and my heart to give one wild leap.
What was it? Something in the voices? Yes; something that brushed my stupor from me as though it were a cobweb; something that made me hush my breath, and strain with all my ears to listen.
The two voices were those of man and woman, They were slightly raised, as if in a quarrel; the woman's pleading and entreating, the man's threatening and stern. But that was not the reason that suddenly set my heart uncontrollably beating and all the blood rushing and surging to my temples.
For in those two voices I recognised Mrs. Luttrell and Simon Colliver!
"Have you not done enough?" the woman's voice was saying. "Has your cruelty no end, that you must pursue me so? Take this money, and let me go."
"I must have more," was the answer.
"Indeed, I have no more just now. Go, only go, and I will send you some. I swear it."
"I cannot go," said the man.
"Never mind. I am watched." Here the voice muttered some words which I could not catch. "So that unless you wish to see your husband swing—and believe me, my confession and last dying speech would not omit to mention the kind aid I had received from you and Clar-"
"Hush! oh, hush! If I get you this money, will you leave us in peace for a time? Knowing your nature, I will not ask for pity—only for a short respite. I must tell Claire, poor girl; she does not know yet—"
Quite softly my boat had drifted once more across the schooner's bows. I pulled it round until its nose touched the anchor chain, and made the painter fast. Then slipping my hand up the chain, I stood with my shoeless feet upon the gunwale by the bows. Still grasping the chain, I sprang and swung myself out to the jib-boom that, with the cant of the vessel, was not far above the water: then pressed my left foot in between the stay and the brace, while I hung for a moment to listen.
They had not heard, for I could still catch the murmur of their voices. The creak of the jib-boom and the swish of my own boat beneath had frightened me at first. It seemed impossible that it should not disturb them. But after a moment my courage returned, and I pulled myself up on to the bowsprit, and lying almost at full length along it, for fear of being spied, crawled slowly along, and dropped noiselessly on to the deck.
They were standing together by the mizzen-mast, he with his back turned full towards me, she less entirely averted, so that I could see a part of her face in the moonlight, and the silvery gleam of her grey hair. Yes, it was they, surely enough; and they had not seen me. My revenge, long waited for, was in my grasp at last.
Suddenly, as I stood there watching them, I remembered my knife—the blade which had slain my father. I had left it below—fool that I was!—in the tin box. Could I creep back again, and return without attracting their attention? Should I hazard the attempt for the sake of planting that piece of steel in Simon Colliver's black heart?
It was a foolish thought, but my whole soul was set upon murder now, and the chance of slaying him with the very knife left in my father's wound seemed too dear to be lightly given up. Most likely he was armed now, whilst I had no weapon but the naked hand. Yet I did not think of this. It never even occurred to me that he would defend himself. Still, the thought of that knife was sweet to me as I crouched there beneath the shadow of the bulwarks. Should I go, or not? I paused for a moment, undecided; then rose slowly erect.
As I did so Mrs. Luttrell turned for an instant and saw me.
As I stood there, bareheaded, with the moonlight shining full upon my white shirt-sleeves, I must have seemed a very ghost; for a look of abject terror swept across her face; her voice broke off and both her hands were flung up for mercy—
"Oh, God! Look! look!"
As I rushed forward he turned, and then, with the spring of a wild cat, was upon me. Even as he leapt, my foot slipped upon the greasy deck; I staggered backward one step—two steps—and then fell with a crash down the unguarded forecastle ladder.
TELLS IN WHAT MANNER I LEARNT THE SECRET OF THE GREAT KEY.
As my senses came gradually back I could distinguish a narrow, dingy cabin, dimly lit by one flickering oil-lamp which swung from a rafter above. Its faint ray just revealed the furniture of the room, which consisted of a seaman's chest standing in the middle, and two gaunt stools. On one of these I was seated, propped against the cabin wall, or rather partition, and as I attempted to move I learnt that I was bound hand and foot.
On the other stool opposite me and beside the chest, sat Simon Colliver, silently eyeing me. The lamplight as it flared and wavered cast grotesque and dancing shadows of the man upon the wall behind, made of his matted hair black eaves under which his eyes gleamed red as fire, and glinted lastly upon something bright lying on the chest before him.
For a minute or so after my eyes first opened no word was said. Still dizzy with my fall, I stared for a moment at the man, then at the chest, and saw that the bright objects gleaming there were my grandfather's key and my watch-chain, at the end of which hung the Golden Clasp. But now the clasp was fitted to its fellow and the whole buckle lay united upon the board.
Though the bonds around my arms, wrists, and ankles caused me intolerable pain, yet my first feeling was rather of abject humiliation. To be caught thus easily, to be lying here like any rat in a gin! this was the agonising thought. Nor was this all. There on the chest lay the Golden Clasp united at last—the work completed which was begun with that unholy massacre on board the Belle Fortune. I had played straight into Colliver's hand.
He was in no hurry, but sat and watched me there with those intolerably evil eyes. His left hand was thrust carelessly into his pocket, and as he tilted back upon the stool and surveyed me, his right was playing with the clasp upon the chest. As I painfully turned my head a drop of blood came trickling down into my eyes from a cut in my forehead; I saw, however, that the door was bolted. An empty bottle and a plate of broken victuals lay carelessly thrust in a corner, and a villainous smell from the lamp filled the whole room and almost choked me; but the only sound in the dead stillness of the place was the monotonous tick-tick of my watch as it lay upon the chest.
How long I had lain there I could not guess, but I noticed that the floor slanted much less than when I first scrambled on deck, so guessed that the tide must have risen considerably. Then having exhausted my wonder I looked again at Colliver, and began to speculate how he would kill me and how long he would take about it.
I found his wolfish eyes still regarding me, and for a minute or two we studied each other in silence. Then without removing his gaze he tilted his stool forward, slowly drew a short heavy knife from his waist-band, slipped it out of its sheath—still without taking his left hand from his pocket—laid it on the table and leant back again.
"I suppose," he said at last and very deliberately as if chewing his words, "you know that if you attempt to cry out or summon help, you are a dead man that instant."
"Well, well," he continued, after waiting a moment for my reply, "as long as you understand that, it does not matter. I confess I should have preferred to talk with you and not merely to you. However, before I kill you—and I suppose you guess that I am going to kill you as soon as I've done with you—I wish to have just a word, Master Jasper Trenoweth."
From the tone in which he said the words he might have been congratulating me on some great good fortune. He paused awhile as if to allow the full force of them to sink in, and then took up the Golden Clasp. Holding the pieces together with the fore-finger and thumb of his right hand, he advanced and thrust it right under my sight—
"Do you see that? Can you read it?"
As I was still mute he walked back to the chest and laid the clasp down again.
"Aha!" he exclaimed with a short laugh horrible to hear, "you won't speak. But there have been times, Mr. Jasper Trenoweth, when you would have given your soul to lay hands upon this piece of gold and read what is written upon it. It is a pity your hands are tied—a thousand pities. But I do not wish to be hard on you, and so I don't mind reading out what is written here. The secret will be safe with you, don't you see? Quite—safe—with—you."
He rolled out these last words, one by one, with infinite relish; and the mockery in the depths of those eyes seared me far more than my bonds. After watching the effect of his taunt he resumed his seat upon the stool, pulled the clasp towards him and said—
"People might call me rash for entrusting these confidences to you. But I do not mind admitting that I owe you some reparation—some anterior reparation. So, as I don't wish you to die cursing me, I will be generous. Listen!"
He held the buckle down upon the table and read out the inscription as follows:—
START AT FULL MOON END SOUTH.
POINT 27 FEET N.N.W. 22 FEET.
W. OF RING NORTH SIDE 4.
FEET 6 INCHES DEEP AT POINT.
OF MEETING LOW WATER 1.5 HOURS.
He read it through twice very slowly, and each time as he ceased looked up to see how I took it.
"It does not seem to make much sense, does it?" he asked. "But wait a moment and let me parcel it out into sentences. I should not like you to miss any of its meaning. Listen again." He divided the writing up thus:—
"Start at full moon. End South Point 27 feet N.N.W. 22 feet W. of Ring. North Side. 4 feet 6 inches deep at point of meeting. Low water 1.5 hours."
"You still seem puzzled, Mr. Trenoweth. Very well, I will even go on to explain further. The person who engraved this clasp meant to tell us that something—let us say treasure, for sake of argument—could be found by anyone who drew two lines from some place unknown: one 27 feet in length in direction N.N.W. from the South Point of that place; the other 22 feet due West of a certain Ring on the North side of that same place. So far I trust I make my meaning clear. That which we have agreed to call the treasure lies buried at a depth of 4 feet 6 inches on the spot where these two lines intersect. But the person (you or I, for the sake of argument) who seeks this treasure must start at full moon. Why? Obviously because the spring tides occur with a full moon, consequently the low ebb. We must expect, then, to find our treasure buried in a spot which is only uncovered at dead low water; and to this conclusion I am also helped by the last sentence, which says, 'Low water 1.5 hours.' It is then, I submit, Mr. Trenoweth, in some such place that we must look for our treasure; the only question being, 'Where is that place?'"
I was waiting for this, and a great tide of joy swept over me as I reflected that after all he had not solved the mystery. The clasp told nothing, the key told nothing. The secret was safe as yet.
He must have read my thoughts, for he looked steadily at me out of those dark eyes of his, and then said very slowly and deliberately—
"Mr. Trenoweth, it grieves me to taunt your miserable case; but do you mind my saying that you are a fool?"
I simply stared in answer.
"Your father was a fool—a pitiful fool; and you are a fool. Which would lead me, did I not know better, to believe that your grandfather, Amos Trenoweth, was a fool also. I should wrong him if I called him that. He was a villain, a black-hearted, murderous, cold-blooded, damnable villain; but he was only a fool for once in his life, and that was when he trusted in the sense of his descendants."
His voice, as he spoke of my grandfather, grew suddenly shrill and discordant, while his eyes blazed up in furious wrath. In a second or two, however, he calmed himself again and went on quietly as before.
"You wonder, perhaps, why I call you a fool. It is because you have lived for fourteen years with your hand upon riches that would make a king jealous, and have never had the sense to grasp them; it is because you have shut your eyes when you might have seen, have been a beggar when you might have ridden in a carriage. Upon my word, Mr. Jasper Trenoweth, when I think of your folly I have half a mind to be dog-sick with you myself."
What could the man mean? What was this clue which I had never found?
"And all the time it was written upon this key here, as large as life; not only that, but, to leave you no excuse, Amos Trenoweth actually told you that it was written here."
"What do you mean?" stammered I, forced into speech at last.
"Ah! so you have found your voice, have you? What do I mean? Do you mean to say you do not guess even now? Upon my word, I am loth to kill so fair a fool." He regarded me for a moment with pitying contempt, then stretched out his hand and took up my grandfather's key.
"I read here," he said, "written very clearly and distinctly, certain words. You must know those words; but I will repeat them to you to refresh your memory:—"
"THY HOUSE IS SET UPON THE SANDS. AND THY HOPES BY A DEAD MAN."
"Well?" I asked, for—fool that I was—even yet I did not understand.
"Mr. Jasper Trenoweth, did you ever hear tell of such a place as Dead Man's Rock?"
The truth, the whole horrible certainty of it, struck me as one great wave, and rushed over my bent head as with the whirl and roar of many waters. "Dead Man's Rock!" "Dead Man's Rock!" it sang in my ears as it swept me off my feet for a moment and passed, leaving me to sink and battle in the gulf of bottomless despair. And then, as if I really drowned, my past life with all its follies, mistakes, wrecked hopes and baseless dreams, shot swiftly past in one long train. Again I saw my mother's patient, anxious smile, my father's drowned face with the salt drops trickling from his golden hair, the struggle on the rock, the inquest, the awful face at the window, the corpses of my parents stretched side by side upon the bed, the scene in the gambling-hell with all its white and desperate faces, Claire, my lost love, the river, the theatre, Tom's death, and that last dreadful scene, Francesca with the dark blood soaking her white dress and trickling down upon the boards. I tried to put my hands before my eyes, but the cords held and cut my arms like burning steel. Then in a flash I seemed to be striding madly up and down Oxford Street, while still in front of me danced and flew the yellow woman, her every diamond flashing in the gas-light, her cold black eyes, as they turned and mocked me, blazing marsh-lights of doom. Then came the ringing of many bells in my ears, mingled with silvery laughter, as though the fiends were ringing jubilant peals within the pit.
Presently the sights grew dim and died away, but the chiming laughter still continued.
I looked up. It was Colliver laughing, and his face was that of an arch-devil.
"It does me good to see you," he explained; "oh, yes, it is honey to my soul. Fool! and a thousand times fool! that ever I should have lived to triumph thus over you and your accursed house!"
Once more his voice grew shrill and his eyes flashed; once more he collected himself.
"You shall hear it out," he said. "Look here!" and he pulled a greasy book from his pocket. "Here is a nautical almanack. What day is it? December 23rd, or rather some time in the morning of December 24th, Christmas Eve. On the evening of December 24th it is full moon, and dead low water at Falmouth about 11.30 p.m. Fate (do you believe in fate, Mr. Trenoweth?) could not have chosen the time better. In something under twenty hours one of us will have his hands upon the treasure. Which will it be, eh? Which will it be?"
Well I knew which it would be, and the knowledge was bitter as gall.
"A merry Christmas, Mr. Jasper Trenoweth! Peace on earth and good-will—You will bear no malice by that time. So a merry Christmas, and a merry Christmas-box! likewise the compliments of the season, and a happy New Year to you! Where are you going to spend Christmas, Mr. Trenoweth—eh? I am thinking of passing it by the sea. You will, perhaps, try the sea too, only you will be in it. Thames runs swiftly when it has a corpse for cargo. Oho!
"At his red, red lips the merrymaid sips For the kiss that his sweetheart stole, my lads— Sing ho! for the bell shall toll!
"I'm afraid no bell will toll for you, Mr. Trenoweth; not yet awhile at any rate. Not till your sweetheart is weary of waiting—
"And the devil has got his due, my lads— Sing ho! but he waits for you!
"Both waiting for you, Mr. Trenoweth, your sweetheart and the devil— which shall have you? 'Ladies first,' you would say. Aha! I am not so sure. By the way, might I give a guess at your sweetheart's name? Might it begin with a C? Might she be a famous actress? Claire perhaps she calls herself? Aha! Claire's pretty eyes will go red with watching before she sets them on you again. Fie on you to keep so sweet a maiden waiting! And where will you be all the time, Mr. Jasper Trenoweth?"
He stopped at last, mastered by his ferocity and almost panting. But I, for the sound of Claire's name had maddened me, broke out in fury—
"Dog and devil! I shall be lying with all the other victims of your accursed life; dead as my father whom you foully murdered within sight of his home; dead as those other poor creatures you slew upon the Belle Fortune; dead as my mother whose pure mind fled at sight of your infernal face, whose very life fled at sight of your handiwork; dead as John Railton whom you stabbed to death upon—"
"Hush, Mr. Trenoweth! As for your ravings, I love to hear them, and could listen by the hour, did not time press. But I cannot have you talking so loudly, you understand;" and he toyed gently with his knife; "also remember I must be at Dead Man's Rock by half-past eleven to-night."
"Fiend!" I continued, "you can kill me if you like, but I will count your crimes with my last breath. Take my life as you took my friend Tom Loveday's life—Tom whom you knifed in the dark, mistaking him for me. Take it as you took Claire's, if ever man—"
"Claire—Claire dead!" He staggered back a step, and almost at the same moment I thought I caught a sound on the other side of the partition at my back. I listened for a moment, then concluding that my ears had played me some trick, went on again—
"Yes, dead—she killed herself to-night at the theatre—stabbed herself—oh, God! Do you think I care for your knife now? Why, I was going to kill myself, to drown myself, at the very moment when I heard your voice and came on board. I came to kill you. Make the most of it—show me no mercy, for as there is a God in heaven I would have shown you none!"
What was that sound again on the other side of the partition? Whatever it was, Colliver had not heard, for he was musing darkly and looking fixedly at me.
"No, I will show you no mercy," he answered quietly, "for I have sworn to show no mercy to your race, and you are the last of it. But listen, that for a few moments before you die you may shake off your smug complacency and learn what this wealth is, and what kind of brood you Trenoweths are. Dog! The treasure that lies by Dead Man's Rock is treasure weighted with dead men's curses and stained with dead men's blood—wealth won by black piracy upon the high seas—gold for which many a poor soul walked the plank and found his end in the deep waters. It is treasure sacked from many a gallant ship, stripped from many a rotting corpse by that black hound your grandfather, Amos Trenoweth. You guessed that? Let me tell you more.
"There is many a soul crying in heaven and hell for vengeance on your race; but your death to-night, Jasper Trenoweth, shall be the peculiar joy of one. You guessed that your grandfather had crimes upon his soul; but you did not guess the blackest crime on his account—the murder of his dearest friend. Listen. I will be brief with you, but I cannot spare myself the joy of letting you know this much before you die. Know then that when your grandfather was a rich man by this friend's aid—after, with this friend's help, he had laid hands on the secret of the Great Ruby for which for many a year he had thirsted, in the moment of his triumph he turned and slew that friend in order to keep the Ruby to himself.
"That fool, your father, kept a Journal—which no doubt you have read over and over again. Did he tell you how I caught him upon Adam's Peak, sitting with this clasp in his hands before a hideous, graven stone? That stone was cut in ghastly mockery of that friend's face; the bones that lay beneath it were the bones of that friend. There, on that very spot where I met your father face to face, did his father, Amos Trenoweth, strike down my father Ralph Colliver.
"Ah, light is beginning to dawn on your silly brain at last! Yes, pretending to protect the old priest who had the Ruby, he stabbed my father with the very knife found in your father's heart, stabbed him before his wife's eyes on that little lawn upon the mountain-side; and, when my helpless mother called vengeance upon him, handed the still reeking knife to her and bade her do her worst. Ah, but she kept that knife. Did you mark what was engraved upon the blade? That knife had a good memory, Mr. Jasper Trenoweth.
"Let me go on. As if that deed were not foul enough, he caused the old priest to carve—being skilful with the chisel—that vile distortion of his dead friend's face out of a huge boulder lying by, and then murdered him too for the Ruby's sake, and tumbled their bodies into the trough together. Such was Amos Trenoweth. Are you proud of your descent?
"I never saw my father. I was not born until three months after this, and not until I was ten years old did my mother tell me of his fate.
"Your grandfather was a fool, Jasper Trenoweth, to despise her; for she was young then and she could wait. She was beautiful then, and Amos Trenoweth himself had loved her. What is she now? Speak, for you have seen her."
As he spoke I seemed to see again that yellow face, those awful, soulless eyes, and hear her laugh as she gazed down from the box upon my dying love.
"Ah, beauty goes. It went for ever on that day when Amos Trenoweth spat in her face and taunted her as she clung to the body of her husband. Beauty goes, but revenge can wait; to-night it has come; to-night a thousand dead men's ghosts shall be glad, and point at your body as it goes tossing out to sea. To-night—but let me tell the rest in a word or two, for time presses. How I was brought up, how my mad mother—for she is mad on every point but one—trained me to the sea, how I left it at length and became an attorney's clerk, all this I need not dwell upon. But all this time the thought of revenge never left me for an hour; and if it had, my mother would have recalled it.
"Well, we settled in Plymouth and I was bound a clerk to your grandfather's attorney, still with the same purpose. There I learnt of Amos Trenoweth's affairs, but only to a certain extent; for of the wealth which he had so bloodily won I could discover nothing; and yet I knew he possessed riches which make the heart faint even to think upon. Yet for all I could discover, his possessions were simply those of a struggling farmer, his business absolutely nothing. I was almost desperate, when one day a tall, gaunt and aged man stepped into the office, asked for my employer, and gave the name of Amos Trenoweth. Oh, how I longed to kill him as he stood there! And how little did he guess that the clerk of whom he took no more notice than of a stone, would one day strike his descendants off the face of the earth and inherit the wealth for which he had sold his soul—the great Ruby of Ceylon!
"My voice trembled with hate as I announced him and showed him into the inner room. Then I closed the door and listened. He was uneasy about his Will—the fool—and did not know that all his possessions would necessarily become his son's. In my heart I laughed at his ignorance; but I learnt enough—enough to wait patiently for years and finally to track Ezekiel Trenoweth to his death.
"It was about this time that I fell in love. In this as in everything through life I have been cursed with the foulest luck, but in this as in everything else my patience has won in the end. Lucy Luttrell loved another man called Railton—John Railton. He was another fool—you are all fools—but she married him and had a daughter. I wonder if you can guess who that daughter was?"
He broke off and looked at me with fiendish malice.
"You hound!" I cried, "she was Janet Railton—Claire Luttrell; and you murdered her father as you say Amos Trenoweth murdered yours."
"Right," he answered coolly. "Quite right. Oh, the arts by which I enticed that man to drink and then to crime! Even now I could sit and laugh over them by the hour. Why, man, there was not a touch of guile in the fellow when I took him in hand, and yet it was he that afterwards took your father's life. He tried it once in Bombay and bungled it sadly: he did it neatly enough, though, on the jib-boom of the Belle Fortune. I lent him the knife: I would have done it myself, but Railton was nearer; and besides it is always better to be a witness."
What was that rustling sound behind the partition? Colliver did not hear it, at any rate, but went on with his tale, and though his eyes were dancing flames of hate his voice was calm now as ever.
"I had stolen half the clasp beforehand from the cabin floor where that stupendous idiot, Ezekiel Trenoweth, had dropped it. Railton caught him before he dropped, but I did not know he had time to get the box away, for just then a huge wave broke over us and before the next we both jumped for the Rock. I thought that Railton must have been sucked back, for I only clung on myself by the luckiest chance. It was pitch-dark and impossible to see. I called his name, but he either could not hear for the roar, or did not choose to answer, so after a bit I stopped. I thought him dead, and he no doubt thought me dead, until we met upon Dead Man's Rock.
"Shall I finish? Oh, yes, you shall hear the whole story. After the inquest I escaped back to Plymouth, told Lucy that her husband had been drowned at sea, and finally persuaded her to leave Plymouth and marry me. So I triumphed there, too: oh, yes, I have triumphed throughout."
"You hound!" I cried.
He laughed a low musical laugh and went on again—
"Ah, yes, you are angry of course; but I let that pass. I have one account to settle with you Trenoweths, and that is enough for me. Three times have I had you in my power, Mr. Jasper Trenoweth—three times or four—and let you escape. Once beneath Dead Man's Rock when I had my fingers on your young weasand and was stopped by those cursed fishermen. Idiots that they were, they thought the sight of me had frightened you and made you faint. Faint! You would have been dead in another half-minute. How I laughed in my sleeve while that uncle of yours was trying to make me understand—me—what was my name then?—oh, ay, Georgio Rhodojani. However, you escaped that time: and once more you hardly guessed how near you were to death, when I looked in at the window on the night after the inquest. Why, in my mind I was tossing up whether or not I should murder you and your white-faced mother. I should have done so, but thought you might hold some knowledge of the secret after your meeting with Railton, so that it seemed better to bide my time."
"If it be any satisfaction to you," I interrupted, "to know that had you killed me then you would never have laid hands on that clasp yonder, you are welcome to it."
"It is," he answered. "I am glad I did not kill you both: it left your mother time to see her dead husband, and has given me the pleasure of killing you now: the treat improves with keeping. Well, let me go on. After that I was forced to leave the country for some time—"
"For another piece of villainy, which your wife discovered."
"How do you know that? Oh, from Claire, I suppose: however, it does not matter. When I came back I found you: found you, and struck again. But again my cursed luck stood in my way and that damned friend of yours knocked me senseless. Look at this mark on my cheek."
"Look at the clasp and you will see where your blow was struck."
"Ah, that was it, was it?" he said, examining the clasp slowly. "I suppose you thought it lucky at the time. So it was—for me. For, though I made another mistake in the fog that night, I got quits with your friend at any rate. I have chafed often enough at these failures, but it has all come right in the end. I ought to have killed your father upon Adam's Peak; but he was a big man, while I had no pistol and could not afford to risk a mistake. Everything, they say, comes to the man who can wait. Your father did not escape, neither will you, and when I think of the joy it was to me to know that you and Claire, of all people—"
But I would hear no more. Mad as I was with shame and horror for my grandfather's cruelty, I knew this man, notwithstanding his talk of revenge, to be a vile and treacherous scoundrel. So when he spoke of Claire I burst forth—
"Dog, this is enough! I have listened to your tale. But when you talk of Claire—Claire whom you killed to-night—then, dog, I spit upon you; kill me, and I hope the treasure may curse you as it has cursed me; kill me; use your knife, for I will shout—"
With a dreadful snarl he was on me and smote me across the face. Then as I continued to call and shout, struck me one fearful blow behind the ear. I remember that the dim lamp shot out a streak of blood-red flame, the cabin was lit for one brief instant with a flash of fire, a thousand lights darted out, and then—then came utter blackness—a vague sensation of being caught up and carried, of plunging down—down—
CHAPTER XI. AND LAST.
TELLS HOW AT LAST I FOUND MY REVENGE AND THE GREAT RUBY.
"Speak—speak to me! Oh, look up and tell me you are not dead!"
Down through the misty defiles and dark gates of the Valley of the Shadow of Death came these words faintly as though spoken far away. So distant did they seem that my eyes opened with vague expectation of another world; opened and then wearily closed again.
For at first they stared into a heaven of dull grey, with but a shadow between them and colourless space. Then they opened once more, and the shadow caught their attention. What was it? Who was I, and how came I to be staring upward so? I let the problem be and fell back into the easeful lap of unconsciousness.
Then the voice spoke again. "He is living yet," it said. "Oh, if he would but speak!"
This time I saw more distinctly. Two eyes were looking into mine—a woman's eyes. Where had I seen that face before? Surely I had known it once, in some other world. Then somehow over my weary mind stole the knowledge that this was Mrs. Luttrell—or was it Claire? No, Claire was dead. "Claire—dead," I seemed to repeat to myself; but how dead or where I could not recall. "Claire—dead;" then this must be her mother, and I, Jasper Trenoweth, was lying here with Claire's mother bending over me. How came we so? What had happened, that—and once more the shadow of oblivion swept down and enfolded me.
She was still there, kneeling beside me, chafing my hands and every now and then speaking words of tender solicitude. How white her hair was! It used not to be so white as this. And where was I lying? In a boat? How my head was aching!
Then remembrance came back. Strange to tell, it began with Claire's death in the theatre, and thence led downwards in broken and interrupted train until Colliver's face suddenly started up before me, and I knew all.
I raised myself on my elbow. My brain was throbbing intolerably, and every pulsation seemed to shoot fire into my temples. Also other bands of fire were clasped about my arms and wrists. So acutely did they burn that I fell back with a low moan and looked helplessly at Mrs. Luttrell.
Although it had been snowing, her bonnet was thrust back from her face and hung by its ribbons which were tied beneath her chin. The breeze was playing with her disordered hair—hair now white as the snow-flakes upon it, though grey when last I had seen it—but it brought no colour to her face. As she bent over me to place her shawl beneath my head, I saw that her blue eyes were strangely bright and prominent.
"Thank God, you are alive! Does the bandage pain you? Can you move?"
I feebly put my hand up and felt a handkerchief bound round my head.
"I was afraid—oh, so afraid!—that I had been too late. Yet God only knows how I got down into your boat—in time—and without his seeing me. I knew what he would do—I was listening behind the partition all the time; but I was afraid he would kill you first."
"I heard all. Oh, if I were only a man—but can you stand? Are you better now? For we must lose no time."
I weakly stared at her in answer.
"Don't you see? If you can stand and walk, as I pray you can, there is no time to be lost. Morning is already breaking, and by this evening you must catch him."
"Yes, yes. He has gone—gone to catch the first train for Cornwall, and will be at Dead Man's Rock to-night. Quick! see if you cannot rise."
I sat up. The water had dripped from me, forming a great pool at our end of the boat. In it she was kneeling, and beside her lay a heavy knife and the cords with which Simon Colliver had bound me.
"Yes," I said, "I will follow. When does the first train leave Paddington?"
"At a quarter past nine," she answered, "and it is now about half-past five. You have time to catch it; but must disguise yourself first. He will travel by it, there is no train before. Come, let me row you ashore."
With this she untied the painter, got out the sculls, sat down upon the thwart opposite, and began to pull desperately for shore. I wondered at her strength and skill with the oar.
"Ah," she said, "I see at what you are wondering. Remember that I was a sailor's wife once, and without strength how should I have dragged you on board this boat?"
"How did you manage it?"
"I cannot tell. I only know that I heard a splash as I waited under the bows there, and then began with my hands to fend the boat around the schooner for dear life. I had to be very silent. At first I could see nothing, for it was dark towards the shore; but I cried to Heaven to spare you for vengeance on that man, and then I saw something black lying across the warp, and knew it was you. I gave a strong push, then rushed to the bows and caught you by the hair. I got you round by the stern as gently as I could, and then pulled you on board somehow—I cannot remember exactly how I did it."
"Did he see you?"
"No, for he must have gone below directly. I rowed under the shadow of the lighter to which we were tied just now, and as I did so, thought I heard him calling me by name. He must have forgotten me, and then suddenly remembered that as yet I had not given him the money. However, presently I heard him getting into his boat and rowing ashore. He came quite close to us—so close that I could hear him cursing, and crouched down in the shadow for fear of my life. But he passed on, and got out at the steps yonder. It was snowing at the time and that helped me."
She pulled a stroke or two in silence, and then continued—
"When you were in the cabin together I was listening. At one point I think I must have fainted; but it cannot have been for long, for when I came to myself you were still talking about—about John Railton."
I remembered the sound which I had heard, and almost in spite of myself asked, "You heard about—"
"Claire? Yes, I heard." She nodded simply; but her eyes sought mine, and in them was a gleam that made me start.
Just then the boat touched at a mouldering flight of stairs, crusted with green ooze to high-water mark, and covered now with snow. She made fast the boat.
"This was the way he went," she muttered. "Track him, track him to his death; spare him no single pang to make that death miserable!" Her low voice positively trembled with concentrated hate. "Stay," she said, "have you money?"
I suddenly remembered that I had given all the money on me to Bagnell for getting out my boat, and told her so. At the same moment, too, I thought upon the tin box still lying under the boat's stern. I stepped aft and pulled it out.
"Here is money," she said; "money that I was to have given him. Fifty pounds it is, in notes—take it all."
"But you?" I hesitated.
"Never mind me. Take it—take it all. What do I want with money if only you kill him?"
I bent and kissed her hand.
"As Heaven is my witness," I said, "it shall be his life or mine. The soul of one of us shall never see to-morrow."
Her hand was as cold as ice, and her pale face never changed.
"Kill him!" she said, simply.
I turned, and climbed the steps. By this time day had broken, and the east was streaked with angry flushes of crimson. The wind swept through my dripping clothes and froze my aching limbs to the marrow. Up the river came floating a heavy pall of fog, out of which the masts showed like grisly skeletons. The snow-storm had not quite ceased, and a stray flake or two came brushing across my face. So dawned my Christmas Eve!
As I gained the top, I turned to look down. She was still standing there, watching me. Seeing me look, she waved her arms, and I heard her hoarse whisper, "Kill him! Kill him! Kill him!"
I left her standing so, and turned away; but in the many ghosts that haunt my solitary days, not the least vivid is the phantom of this white-haired woman on the black and silent river, eternally beckoning, "Kill him!"
I found myself in a yard strewn with timber, spars and refuse, half hidden beneath the snow. From it a flight of rickety stone steps led to a rotting door, and thence into the street. Here I stood for a moment, pondering on my next step. Not a soul was abroad so early; but I must quickly get a change of clothes somewhere; at present I stood in my torn dress trousers and soaked shirt. I passed up the street, my shoeless feet making the first prints in the newly-fallen snow. The first? No; for when I looked more closely I saw other footprints, already half obliterated, leading up the street. These must be Simon Colliver's. I followed them for about a hundred yards past the shuttered windows.
Suddenly they turned into a shop door, and then seemed to leave it again. The shop was closed, and above it hung three brass balls, each covered now with a snowy cap. Above, the blinds were drawn down, but on looking again, I saw a chink of light between the shutters. I knocked.
After a short pause, the door was opened. A red-eyed, villainous face peered out, and seeing me, grew blank with wonder.
"What do you want?" inquired at length the voice belonging to it.
"To buy a fresh suit of clothes. See, I have fallen into the river."
Muttering something beneath his breath, the pawnbroker opened his door, and let me into the shop.
It was a dingy nest, fitted up with the usual furniture of such a place. The one dim candle threw a ghostly light on chairs, clocks, compasses, trinkets, saucepans, watches, piles of china, and suits of left-off clothes arrayed like rows of suicides along the wall. A general air of decay hung over the den. Immediately opposite me, as I entered, a stuffed parrot, dropping slowly into dust, glared at me with one malevolent eye of glass, while a hideous Chinese idol, behind the counter, poked out his tongue in a very frenzy of malignity. But my eye wandered past these, and was fixed in a moment upon something that glittered upon the counter. That something was my own watch.
Following my gaze, the man gave me a quick, suspicious glance, hastily caught up the watch, and was bestowing it on one of his shelves, when I said—
"Where did you get that?"
"Quite innocently, sir, I swear. I bought it of a gentleman who came in just now, and would not pawn it. I thought it was his, so that if you belong to the Force, I hope—"
"Gently, my friend," said I; "I am not in the police, so you need not be in such a fright. Nevertheless, that watch is mine; I can tell you the number, if you don't believe it."
He pushed the watch across to me and said, still greatly frightened—
"I am sure you may see it, sir, with all my heart. I wouldn't for worlds—"
"What did you give for it?"
He hesitated a moment, and then, as greed overmastered fear, replied—
"Fifteen pounds, sir; and the man would not take a penny less. Fifteen good pounds! I swear it, as I am alive!"
Although I saw that the man lied, I drew out three five-pound notes, laid them on the table, and took my watch. This done, I said—