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Armorel of Lyonesse By Walter Besant Characters: 15675

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02

At nine o'clock the little bar parlour of Tregarthen's was nearly full. It is a very little room, low as well as little, therefore it is easily filled. And though it is the principal club-room of Hugh Town, where the better sort and the notables meet, it can easily accommodate them all. They do not, however, meet every evening, and they do not all come at once. There is a wooden settle along the wall, beautifully polished by constant use, which holds four: a smaller one beside the fire, where at a pinch two might sit; there is a seat in the window which also might hold two, but is only comfortable for one. A small round table only leaves room for one chair. This makes sitting accommodation for nine, and when all are present, and all nine are smoking tobacco like one, the atmosphere is convivially pungent. This evening there were only seven. They consisted of the two young men whose perils on the deep you have just witnessed; a Justice of the Peace-but his office is a sinecure, because on the Scilly Isles virtue reigns in every heart; a flower-farmer of the highest standing; two other gentlemen weighed down with the mercantile anxieties and interests of the place-they ought to have been in wigs and square brown coats, with silver buckles to their shoes; and one who held office and exercised authority.

The art of conversation cannot be successfully cultivated on a small island, on board ship, or in a small country town. Conversation requires a continual change of company, and a great variety of topics. Your great talker, when he inconsiderately remains too long among the same set, becomes a bore. After a little, unless he goes away, or dies, or becomes silent, they kill him, or lock him up in an asylum. At Tregarthen's he would be made to understand that either he or the rest of the population must leave the archipelago and go elsewhere. In some colonial circles they play whist, which is an excellent method, perhaps the best ever invented, for disguising the poverty or the absence of conversation. At Tregarthen's they do not feel this necessity-they are contented with their conversation; they are so happily contented that they do not repine even though they get no more than an observation dropped every ten minutes or so. They are not anxious to reply hurriedly; they are even contented to sit silently enjoying the proximity of each other-the thing, in fact, which lies at the root of all society. The evening is not felt to be dull, though there are no fireworks of wit and repartee. Indeed, if Douglas Jerrold himself were to appear with a bag full of the most sparkling epigrams and repartees, nobody would laugh, even when he was kicked out into the cold and unappreciative night-the stars have no sense of humour-as a punishment for impudence.

This evening the notables spoke occasionally; they spoke slowly-the Scillonians all talk slowly-they neither attempted nor looked for smartness. They did not tell stories, because all the stories are known, and they can now only be told to strangers. The two young men from London listened without taking any part in the talk: people who have just escaped-and that narrowly-a sharp and painful death by drowning and banging on jagged rocks are expected to be hushed for awhile. But they listened. And they became aware that the talk, in whatever direction it wandered, always came back to the sea. Everything in Scilly belongs to the sea: they may go up country, which is a journey of a mile and a half, or even two miles-and speak for a moment of the crops and the farms; but that leads to the question of import and export, and, therefore, to the vessels lying within the pier, and to the steam service to Penzance and to vessels in other ports, and, generally, to steam service about the world. And again, wherever two or three are gathered together in Scilly, one at least will be found to have ploughed the seas in distant parts. This confers a superiority on the society of the islands which cannot, even in these days, be denied or concealed. In the last century, when a man who was known to have crossed the Pacific entered a coffee-house, the company with one accord gazed upon him with envy and wonder. Even now, familiarity hath not quite bred contempt. We still look with unconcealed respect upon one who can tell of Tahiti and the New Hebrides, and has stood upon the mysterious shores of Papua. And, at Tregarthen's this evening, these two strangers were young; they had not yet made the circuit of the round earth; they had had, as yet, not many opportunities of talking with travellers and sailors. Therefore, they listened, and were silent.

Presently, one after the other, the company got up and went out. There is no sitting late at night in Scilly. There were left of all only the Permanent Official.

'I hear, gentlemen,' he said, 'that you have had rather a nasty time this evening.'

'We should have been lost,' said the artist, 'but for a-young lady, who saw our danger and came out to us.'

'Armorel. I saw her towing in your boat and landing you. Yes, it was a mighty lucky job that she saw you in time. There's a girl! Not yet sixteen years old! Yet I'd rather trust myself with her in a boat, especially if she had the boy Peter with her, than any boatman of the islands. And there's not a rock or an islet, not a bay or a headland in this country of bays and capes and rocks, that she does not know. She could find her way blindfold by the feel of the wind and the force of the current. But it's in her blood. Father to son-father to son and daughter too-the Roseveans are born boatmen.'

'She saved our lives,' repeated the artist. 'That is all we know of her. It is a good deal to know, perhaps, from our own point of view.'

'She belongs to Samson. They've always lived on Samson. Once there were Roseveans, Tryeths, Jenkinses, and Woodcocks on Samson. Now, they are nearly all gone-only one family of Rosevean left, and one of Tryeth.'

'She said that nobody else lived there.'

'Well, it is only her own family. They've started a flower-farm lately on Holy Hill, and I hear it's doing pretty well. It's a likely situation, too, facing south-west and well sheltered. You should go and see the flower-farm. Armorel will be glad to show you the farm, and the island too. Samson has got a good many curious things-more curious, perhaps, than she knows, poor child!'

He paused for a moment, and then continued: 'There's nobody on the island now but themselves. There's the old woman, first-you should see her too. She's a curiosity by herself-Ursula Rosevean-she was a Traverse, and came from Bryher to be married. She married Methusalem Rosevean, Armorel's great-great-grandfather-that was nigh upon eighty years ago; she's close upon a hundred now; and she's been a widow since-when was it?-I believe she'd only been a wife for twelve months or so. He was drowned on a smuggling run-his brother Emanuel, too. Widow used to look for him from the hill-top every night for a year and more afterwards. A wonderful old woman! Go and look at her. Perhaps she will talk to you. Sometimes, when Armorel plays the fiddle, she will brighten up and talk for an hour. She knows how to cure all diseases, and she can foretell the future. But she's too old now, and mostly she's asleep. Then there's Justinian Tryeth and Dorcas, his wife-they're over seventy, both of them, if they're a day. Dorcas was a St. Agnes girl-that's the reason why her name was Hicks: if she'd come from Bryher she'd have been a Traverse; if from Tresco she'd have been a Jenkins. But she was a Hicks. She's as old as her husband, I should say. As for the boy, Peter--'

'She called him the boy, I remember. But he seemed to me--'

'He's fifty, but he's always been the boy. He never married, because there was nobody left on Sa

mson for him to marry, and he's always been too busy on the farm to come over here after a wife. And he looks more than fifty, because once he fell off the pier, head first, into the stern of a boat, and after he'd been unconscious for three days, all his hair fell off except a few stragglers, and they'd turned white. Looks most as old as his father. Chessun's near fifty-two.'

'Who is Chessun?'

'She's the girl. She's always been the girl. She's never married, just like Peter her brother, because there was no one left on Samson for her. And she never leaves the island except once or twice a year, when she goes to the afternoon service at Bryher. Well, gentlemen, that's all the people left on Samson. There used to be more-a great many more-quite a population, and if all stories are true, they were a lively lot. You'll see their cottages standing in ruins. As for getting drowned, you'd hardly believe! Why, take Armorel alone. Her father, Emanuel-he'd be about fifty-seven now-he was drowned-twelve years ago it must be now-with his wife and his three boys, Emanuel, John, and Andrew, crossing over from a wedding at St. Agnes. He married Rovena Wetherel, from St. Mary's. Then there was her grandfather, he was a pilot-but they were all pilots-and he was cast away taking an East Indiaman up the Channel, cast away on Chesil Bank in a fog-that was in the year 1845-and all hands lost. His father-no, no, that was his uncle-all in the line were drowned; that one's uncle died in his bed unexpectedly-you can see the bed still-but they do say, just before some officers came over about a little bit of business connected with French brandy. One of the Roseveans went away, and became a purser in the Royal Navy. Those were the days for pursers! Their accounts were never audited, and when they'd squared the captain and paid him the wages and allowances for the dummies and the dead men, they had left as much-ay, as a couple of thousand a year. After this he left the Navy and purveyed for the Fleet, and became so rich that they had to make him a knight.'

'Was there much smuggling here in the old days?'

'Look here, sir; a Scillonian in the old days called himself a pilot, a fisherman, a shopkeeper, or a farmer, just as he pleased. That was his pleasant way. But he was always-mind you-a smuggler. Armorel's great-great-great-grandfather, father of the old lady's husband-him who was never heard of afterwards, but was supposed to have been cast away off the French coast-he was known to have made great sums of money. Never was anyone on the islands in such a big way. Lots of money came to the islands from smuggling. They say that the St. Martin's people have kept theirs, and have got it invested; but, for all the rest, it's gone. And they were wreckers too. Many and many a good ship before the islands were lit up have struck on the rocks and gone to pieces. What do you think became of the cargoes? Where were the Scilly boats when the craft was breaking up? And did you never hear of the ship's lantern tied to the horns of a cow? They've got one on Samson could tell a tale or two; and they've still got a figure-head there which ought to have haunted old Emanuel Rosevean when his boat capsized off the coast of France.'

'An interesting family history.'

'Yes. Until the Preventive Service put an end to the trade, the Roseveans were the most successful and the most daring smugglers in the islands. But an unlucky family. All these drownings make people talk. Old wives' talk, I dare say. But for something one of them did-wrecking a ship, robbing the dead, who knows-they say the bad luck will go on till something is done-I know not what.'

He got up and put on his cap, the blue-cloth cap with a cloth peak, much affected in Scilly, because the wind blows off any other form of hat ever invented.

'It is ten o'clock-I must go. Did you ever hear the story, gentlemen, of the Scillonian sailor?' He sat down again. 'I believe it must have been one of the Roseveans. He was on board a West Indiaman, homeward bound, and the skipper got into a fog and lost his reckoning. Then he asked this man if he knew the Scilly Isles. "Better nor any book," says the sailor. "Then," says the skipper, "take the wheel." In an hour crash went the ship upon the rocks. "Damn your eyes!" says the skipper, "you said you knew the Scilly Isles." "So I do," says the man; "this is one of 'em." The ship went to pieces, and near all the hands were lost. But the people of the islands had a fine time with the flotsam and the jetsam for a good many days afterwards.'

'I believe,' said the young man-he who answered to the name of Dick-'that this patriot is buried in the old churchyard. I saw an inscription to-day which probably marks his tomb. Under the name is written the words "Dulce et decor"-but the rest is obliterated.'

'Very likely-they would bury him in the old churchyard. Good-night, gentlemen!'

'Roland!' The young man called Dick jumped from the settle. 'Roland! Pinch me-shake me-stick a knife into me-but not too far-I feel as if I was going off my head. The fair Armorel's father was a corsair, who was drowned on his way from the coast of France, with his grandfather and his great-grandfather and great-grand-uncles, after having been cast away upon the Chesil Bank, and never heard of again, though he was wanted on account of a keg of French brandy picked up in the Channel. He made an immense pile of money, which has been lost; and there's an old lady at the farm so old-so old-so very, very old-it takes your breath away only to think of it-that she married Methusalem. Her husband was drowned-a new light, this, on history-and of course she escaped on the Ark-as a stowaway or a cabin passenger. Armorel plays the fiddle and makes the old lady jump.'

'We'll go over there to-morrow.'

'We will. It is a Land of Enchantment, this outlying bit of Lyonesse. Meanwhile, just to clear my brain, I think I must have a whisky. The weakness of humanity demands it.

Oh! 'twas in Tregarthen's bar,

Where the pipes and whiskies are--

They are an unlucky family,' he went on, 'because they "did something." Remark, Roland, that here is the very element of romance. My ancestors have "done something" too. I am sure they have, because my grandfather kept a shop, and you can't keep a shop without "doing something." But Fate never persecuted my father, the dean, and I am not in much anxiety that I too shall be shadowed on account of the old man. Yet look at Armorel Rosevean! There's distinction, mind you, in being selected by Fate for vicarious punishment. The old corsair wrecked a ship and robbed the bodies: therefore, all his descendants have got to be drowned. Dear me! If we were all to be drowned because our people had once "done something," the hungry, insatiate sea would be choked, and the world would come to an end. A Scotch whisky, Rebecca, if you please, and a seltzer! To-morrow, Roland, we will once more cross the raging main, but under protection. If you break an oar again, you shall be put overboard. We will visit this fair child of Samson. Child of Samson! The Child of Samson! Was Delilah her mother, or is she the grand daughter of the Timnite? Has she inherited the virtues of her father as well as his strength? Were the latter days of Delilah sanctified and purified? Happily, she is only as yet a child-only a child, Roland'-he emphasised the words-'although a child of Samson.'

* * *

In the night a vision came to Roland Lee. He saw Armorel once more sailing to his rescue. And in his vision he was seized with a mighty terror and a shaking of the limbs, and his heart sank and his cheek blanched; and he cried aloud, as he sank beneath the cold waters: 'Oh, Armorel, you have come too late! Armorel, you cannot save me now.'

* * *

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