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Armorel of Lyonesse By Walter Besant Characters: 16299

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02

'Peter!' cried Armorel in the farmyard. 'Peter! Peter! Wake up! Where is the boy? Wake up and come quick!'

The boy was not sleeping, however, and came forth slowly, but obediently, in rustic fashion. He was a little older than most of those who still permit themselves to be called boys: unless his looks deceived one, he was a great deal older, for he was entirely bald, save for a few long, scattered hairs, which were white. His beard and whiskers also consisted of nothing but a few sparse white hairs. He moved heavily, without the spring of boyhood in his feet. Had Peter jumped or run, one might in haste have inferred a condition of drink or mental disorder. As for his shoulders, too, they were rounded, as if by the weight of years-a thing which is rarely seen in boys. Yet Armorel called this antique person 'the boy,' and he answered to the name without remonstrance.

'Quick, Peter!' she cried. 'There's a boat drifting on White Island Ledge, and the tide's running out strong; and there are two men in her, and they've got no oars in the boat. Ignorant trippers, I suppose! They will both be killed to a certainty, unless-- Quick!'

Peter followed her flying footsteps with a show of haste and a movement of the legs approaching alacrity. But then he was always a slow boy, and one who loved to have his work done for him. Therefore, when he reached the landing-place, he found that Armorel was well before him, and that she had already shipped mast and sail and oars, and was waiting for him to shove off.

Samson has two landing beaches, one on the north-east below Bryher Hill, and the other farther south, on the eastern side of the valley. There might be a third, better than either, on Porth Bay, if anyone desired to put off there, on the west side facing the other islands, where nobody has any business at all except to see the rocks or shoot wild birds.

The beach used by the Holy Hill folk was the second of these two; here they kept their boats, and had their old stone boat-house to store the gear; and it was here that Armorel stood waiting for her companion.

Peter was slow on land; at sea, however, he alone is slow who does not know what can be got out of a boat, and how it can be got. Peter did possess this knowledge; all the islanders, in fact, have it. They are born with it. They also know that nothing at sea is gained by hurry. It is a maxim which is said to rule or govern their conduct on land as well as afloat. Peter, therefore, when he had pushed off, sat down and took an oar with no more appearance of hurry than if he were taking a boat-load of boxes filled with flowers across to the port. Armorel took the other oar.

'They are drifting on White Island Ledge,' repeated Armorel; 'and the tide is running out fast.'

Peter made no reply-Armorel expected none-but dipped his oar. They rowed in silence for ten minutes. Then Peter found utterance, and spoke slowly.

'Twenty years ago-I remember it well-a boat went ashore on that very Ledge. The tide was running out-strong, like to-night. There was three men in her-visitors they were, who wanted to save the boatman's pay. Their bodies was never found.'

Then both pulled on in silence, and doggedly.

In ten minutes or more they had rounded the Point at a respectful distance, for reasons well known to the navigator and the nautical surveyor of Scilly. Peter, without a word, shipped his oar. Armorel did likewise. Then Peter stepped the mast and hoisted the sail, keeping the line in his own hand, and looked ahead, while Armorel took the helm.

'It's Jinkins's boat,' said Peter, because they were now in sight of her. 'What'll Jinkins say when he hears that his boat's gone to pieces?'

'And the two men? Who are they? Will Jinkins say nothing about the men?'

'Strangers they are; gentlemen, I suppose. Well, if the breeze doesn't soon-- Ah, here it is!'

The wind suddenly filled the sail. The boat heeled over under the breeze, and a moment after was flying through the water straight up the broad channel between the two Minaltos and Samson.

The sun was very low now. Between them and the west lay the boat they were pursuing-a small black object, with two black silhouettes of figures clear against the crimson sky. And now Armorel perceived that they had by this time gotten an inkling, at least, of their danger, for they no longer sat passive, but had torn up a plank from the bottom, with which one, kneeling in the bows, was working as with a paddle, but without science. The boat yawed this way and that, but still kept on her course drifting to the rocks.

'If she touches the Ledge, Peter,' said Armorel, 'she will be in little bits in five minutes. The water is rushing over it like a mill-stream.'

This she said ignorant of mill-streams, because there are none on Scilly; but the comparison served.

'If she touches,' Peter replied, 'we may just go home again. For we shall be no good to nobody.'

Beyond the boat they could plainly see the waters breaking over the Ledge; the sun lit up the white foam that leaped and flew over the black rocks just showing their teeth above the water as the tide went down.

Here is a problem-you may find plenty like it in every book of algebra. Given a boat drifting upon a ledge of rocks with the current and the tide; given a boat sailing in pursuit with a fair wind aft; given also the velocity of the current and the speed of the boat and the distance of the first boat from the rocks: at what distance must the second boat commence the race in order to catch up the first before it drives upon the rocks?

This second boat, paying close attention to the problem, came up hand over hand, rapidly overtaking the first boat, where the two men not only understood at last the danger they were in, but also that an attempt was being made to save them. In fact, one of them, who had some tincture or flavour of the mathematics left in him from his school days, remembered the problems of this class, and would have given a great deal to have been back again in school working out one of them.

Presently the boats were so near that Peter hailed, 'Boat ahoy! Back her! Back her! or you'll be upon the rocks. Back her all you know!'

'We've broken our oars,' they shouted.

'Keep her off!' Peter bawled again.

Even with a plank taken from the bottom of the boat a practised boatman would have been able to keep her off long enough to clear the rocks; but these two young men were not used to the ways of the sea.

'Put up your hellum,' said Peter, quietly.

'What are you going to do?' The girl obeyed first, as one must do at sea, and asked the question afterwards.

'There's only one chance. We must cut across her bows. Two lubbers! They ought not to be trusted with a boat. There's plenty of room.' He looked at the Ledge ahead and at his own sail. 'Now-steady.' He tightened the rope, the boat changed her course. Then Peter stood up and called again, his hand to his mouth, 'Back her! Back her! Back her all you know!' He sat down and said quietly, 'Now, then-luff it is-luff-all you can.'

The boat turned suddenly. It was high time. Right in front of them-only a few yards in front-the water rushed as if over a cascade, boiling and surging among the rocks. At high tide there would have been the calm, unruffled surface of the ocean swell; now there were roaring floods and swelling whirlpools. The girl looked round, but only for an instant. Then the boat crossed the bows of the other, and Armorel, as they passed, caught the rope that was held out to her.

One moment more and they were off the rocks, in deep water, towing the other boat after them.

Then Peter arose, lowered the sail, and took down his mast.

'Nothing,' he said, 'between us and Mincarlo. Now, gentlemen, if you will step into this boat we can tow yours along with us. So-take care, sir! Sit in the stern beside the young lady. Can you row, either of you?'

They could both row, they said. In these days a man is as much ashamed of not being able to row as, fifty years ago, he was ashamed of not being able to ride. Peter took one oar and g

ave the other to the stranger nearest. Then, without more words, he dipped his oar and began to row back again. The sun went down, and it suddenly became cold.

Armorel perceived that the man beside her was quite a young man-not more than one- or two-and-twenty. He wore brave attire-even a brown velvet jacket, a white waistcoat, and a crimson necktie; he also had a soft felt hat. Nature had not yet given him much beard, but what there was of it he wore pointed, with a light moustache so arranged as to show how it would be worn when it became of a respectable length. As he sat in the boat he seemed tall; and he did not look at all like one of the bawling and boastful trippers who sometimes come over to the islands for a night and pretend to know how to manage a boat. Yet--

'What do you mean,' asked the girl, severely, 'by going out in a boat, when you ought to have known very well that you could not manage her?'

'We thought we could,' replied this disconcerted pretender, with meekness suitable to the occasion. Indeed, under such humiliating circumstances, Captain Parolles himself would become meek.

'If we had not seen you,' she continued, 'you would most certainly have been killed.'

'I begin to think we might. We should certainly have gone on those rocks. But there is an island close by. We could swim.'

'If your boat had touched those rocks you would have been dead in three minutes,' this maid of wisdom continued. 'Nothing could have saved you. No boat could have come near you. And to think of standing or swimming in that current and among those rocks! Oh! but you don't know Scilly.'

'No,' he replied, still with a meekness that disarmed wrath, 'I'm afraid not.'

'Tell me how it happened.'

The other man struck in-he who was wielding the oar. He also was a young man, of shorter and more sturdy build than the other. Had he not, unfortunately, confined his whole attention in youth to football, he might have made a good boatman. Really, a young man whose appearance conveyed no information or suggestion at all about him except that he seemed healthy, active, and vigorous, and that he was presumably short-sighted, or he would not have worn spectacles.

'I will tell you how it came about,' he said. 'This man would go sketching the coast. I told him that the islands are so beautifully and benevolently built that every good bit has got another bit on the next island, or across a cove, or on the other side of a bay, put there on purpose for the finest view of the first bit. You only get that arrangement, you know, in the Isles of Scilly and the Isles of Greece. But he wouldn't be persuaded, and so we took a boat and went to sea, like the three merchants of Bristol city. We saw Jerusalem and Madagascar very well, and if you hadn't turned up in the nick of time I believe we should have seen the river Styx as well, with Cocytus very likely: good old Charon certainly: and Tantalus, too much punished-overdone-up to his neck.'

Armorel heard, wondering what, in the name of goodness, this talker of strange language might mean.

'When his oar broke, you know,' the talker went on, 'I began to laugh, and so I caught a crab; and while I lay in the bottom laughing like Tom of Bedlam, my oar dropped overboard, and there we were. Five mortal hours we drifted; but we had tobacco and a flask, and we didn't mind so very much. Some boat, we thought, might pick us up.'

'Some boat!' echoed Armorel. 'And outside Samson!'

'As for the rocks, we never thought about them. Had we known of the rocks, we should not have laughed--'

'You have saved our lives,' said the young man in the velvet jacket. He had a soft sweet voice, which trembled a little as he spoke. And, indeed, it is a solemn thing to be rescued from certain death.

'Peter did it,' Armorel replied. 'You may thank Peter.'

'Let me thank you,' he said, softly and persuasively. 'The other man may thank Peter.'

'Just as you like. So long, that is, as you remember that it will have to be a lesson to you as long as you live never to go out in a boat without a man.'

'It shall be a lesson. I promise. And the man I go out with, next time, shall not be you, Dick.'

'Never,' she went on, enforcing the lesson, 'never go in a boat alone, unless you know the waters. Are you Plymouth trippers? But then Plymouth people generally know how to handle a boat.'

'We are from London.' In the twilight the blush caused by being taken for a Plymouth tripper was not perceived. 'I am an artist, and I came to sketch.' He said this with some slight emphasis and distinction. There must be no mistaking an artist from London for a Plymouth tripper.

'You must be hungry.'

'We are ravenous, but at this moment one can only feel that it is better to be hungry and alive than to be drowned and dead.'

'Oh!' she said, earnestly, 'you don't know how strong the water is. It would have thrown you down and rolled you over and over among the rocks, your head would have been knocked to pieces, your face would have been crushed out of shape, every bone would have been broken: Peter has seen them so.'

'Ay! ay!' said Peter. 'I've picked 'em up just so. You are well off those rocks, gentlemen.'

Silence fell upon them. The twilight was deepening, the breeze was chill. Armorel felt that the young man beside her was shivering-perhaps with the cold. He looked across the dark water and gasped: 'We are coming up,' he said, 'out of the gates of death and the jaws of hell. Strange! to have been so near unto dying. Five minutes more, and there would have been an end, and two more men would have been created for no other purpose but to be drowned.'

Armorel made no reply. The oars kept dipping, dipping, evenly and steadily. Across the waters on either hand flashed lights: St. Agnes and the Bishop from the south-they are white lights; and from the north the crimson splendour of Round Island: the wind was dropping, and there was a little phosphorescence on the water, which gleamed along the blade of the oar.

In half an hour the boat rounded the new pier, and they were in the harbour of Hugh Town at the foot of the landing steps.

'Now,' said Armorel, 'you had better get home as fast as you can and have some supper.'

'Why,' cried the artist, realising the fact for the first time, 'you are bare-headed! You will kill yourself.'

'I am used to going about bare-headed. I shall come to no harm. Now go and get some food.'

'And you?' The young man stood on the stepping-stones ready to mount.

'We shall put up the sail and get back to Samson in twenty minutes. There is breeze enough for that.'

'Will you tell us,' said the artist, 'before you go-to whom we are indebted for our very lives?'

'My name is Armorel.'

'May we call upon you? To-night we are too bewildered. We cannot say what we ought and must say.'

'I live on Samson. What is your name?'

'My name is Roland Lee. My friend here is called Dick Stephenson.'

'You can come if you wish. I shall be glad to see you,' she corrected herself, thinking she had been inhospitable and ungracious.

'Am I to ask for Miss Armorel?'

She laughed merrily. 'You will find no one to ask, I am afraid. Nobody else, you see, lives on Samson. When you land, just turn to the left, walk over the hill, and you will find the house on the other side. Samson is not so big that you can miss the house. Good-night, Roland Lee! Good-night, Dick Stephenson!'

'She's only a child,' said the young man called Dick, as he climbed painfully and fearfully up the dark and narrow steps, slippery with sea-weed and not even protected by an inner bar. 'I suppose it doesn't much matter since she's only a child. But I merely desire to point out that it's always the way. If there does happen to be an adventure accompanied by a girl-most adventures bring along the girl: nobody cares, in fact, for an adventure without a girl in it-I'm put in the background and made to do the work while you sit down and talk to the girl. Don't tell me it was accidental. It was the accident of design. Hang it all! I'll turn painter myself.'

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