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Armorel of Lyonesse By Walter Besant Characters: 29591

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02

The striking of seven by the most sonorous and musical of clocks ever heard reminded Roland of the dinner-hour. At seven most of us are preparing for this function, which civilisation has converted almost into an act of praise and worship. Some men, he remembered, were now walking in the direction of the club: some were dressing: some were making for restaurants: some had already begun. One naturally associates seven o'clock with the anticipation of dinner. There are men, it is true, who habitually take in food at midday and call it dinner: there are also those who have no dinner at all. He began to realise that he was not, this evening, going to have any dinner at all. For he was now at the farmhouse, sitting in the square window with Armorel: he had gone back to Tregarthen's and returned with his portmanteau and his painting gear: fortunately he had also taken an abundant lunch at that establishment. He had become an inhabitant of Samson. The increased population, therefore, now consisted of seven souls.

In fact, there was no dinner for him. Everybody in Samson dines at half-past twelve: he had tea with Armorel at half-past four: after tea they wandered along the shore and stood upon Shark Point to see the sun set behind Mincarlo, an operation performed with zeal and despatch, and with great breadth and largeness of colouring. When the shades of evening began to prevail they were fain to get home quickly, because there is no path among the boulders, nor have former inhabitants provided hand-rails for visitors on the carns. Therefore they retraced their steps to the farm, and Armorel left him sitting alone in the square window while she went about some household duties. In the quiet room the solemn clock told the moments, and there was light enough left to discern the ghostly figure of the ancient dame sleeping in her chair. The place was so quiet and so strange that the visitor presently felt as if he was sitting among ghosts. It is at twilight, in fact, that the spirits of the past make themselves most readily felt, if not seen. Now, it was exactly as if he had been in the place before. He knew, now, why he had been so suddenly and strangely attracted to Samson. He had been there before-when, or under what conditions, he knew not, and did not ask himself. It is a condition of the mind known to everybody. A touch-a word-a look-and we are transported back-how many years ago? The hills, the rocks, the house, Armorel herself-all were familiar to him. The thing was absurd, yet in his mind it was quite clear. It was so absurd that he thought his mind was wandering, and he arose and went out into the garden. There, the figure-head of the woman under the tall fuchsia-tree-the glow from the fire in the sitting-room fell upon the face through the window-seemed to smile upon him as upon an old friend. He went back again and sat down. Where was Armorel?

This strange familiarity with an unknown place quickly passes, though it may return. He now began to feel as if, perhaps, he was making a mistake. He was living on an island, with, practically, no other companion than a girl of fifteen. Dick, who had become suddenly grumpy on learning his resolution to stay, might be right. Well, he would sketch and paint; he would be very careful; not a word should be said that might disturb the child's tranquillity. No-Dick was a fool. He was going to have a day or two-just a day or two-of quiet happiness. The girl was young and beautiful and innocent. She was also made happy-she showed that happiness without an attempt at concealment-because he was going to stay. What would follow?

Well-it was an adventure. One does not ask what is going to follow on first encountering an adventure. What young man, besides, sallying forth upon a simple holiday, looks to find himself upon a desert island with no other companion than a trustful and admiring maiden of fifteen?

Then Armorel returned and took a chair beside him. He was a little surprised-but then, on a desert island nothing happens as on terra firma-that she did not ring for lights, and was still not without some hope of dinner. They took up the thread of talk about the islands, concerning which Roland Lee perceived that he would before long know a good deal. Local knowledge is always interesting; but it does not, except to novelists, possess a marketable value. One cannot, for instance, at a dinner-party, turn the conversation on the respective families of St. Agnes and St. Martin's. He made a mental note that he would presently change the subject to one of deeper personal interest. Perhaps he could get Armorel to talk about herself. That would be very much more interesting than to hear about the three Pipers' Holes of Tresco, White, and St. Mary's Islands. How did she live-this girl-and what did she do-and what did she think?

Meantime, while the girl herself was talking of the rocks and bays, the crags and coves, the white sand and the grey granite, the seals and the shags, the puffins and the dottrells, she was wondering, for her part, what manner of man this was-how he lived, and what he did, and what he thought. For when man and woman meet they are clothed and covered up; they are a mystery each to the other; never, since the Fall, have we been able to read each other's hearts.

But when the clock struck seven Armorel sprang to her feet, as one who hath a serious duty to perform, and preparations to make for it.

First she pulled down the blind, and so shut out what was left of the twilight. The fire had sunk low, but by its light she was dimly visible. She pushed back the table; she placed two chairs opposite the old lady, and another chair before the spinning-wheel.

'Something,' said the young man to himself, 'is certainly going to happen. One can no longer hope for dinner. Family prayers, perhaps; or the worship of the old lady as an ancestor. The descendants of the ancient people of Lyonesse no doubt bow down to the sun and dance to the moon, and pass the children through the holèd stone, and make Baal fires, and worship their grandmothers. It will be an interesting function. But, perhaps, only family prayers.'

Armorel took down the fiddle that hung on the wall and began to tune it, twanging the strings and drawing the bow across in the manner which so pleasantly excites the theatre before the music begins.

'Not family prayers, then,' said the young man, perhaps disappointed.

What did happen, however, was a series of things quite new and wholly unexpected. Never was known such a desert island.

First of all, the lady of many generations moved uneasily in her sleep at the twanging of the strings, and her fingers clutched at her dress as if she was startled by an uneasy dream.

And then the door opened, and a small procession of three came in. At this point, had the young man been a Roman Catholic, he would have crossed himself. As he was not, he only started and murmured, 'As I thought. The worship of the ancestor! These are the ghosts of the grandfather and the grandmother. The old lady is a mummy. They are all ghosts-I shall presently awake and find myself on my back among the barrows.'

First came an ancient dame, but not so ancient as she of the great chair. Grey-headed she was, and equipped in a large cap; wrinkled was her face, and her chin, for lack of teeth, approached her nose, quite in the ancestral manner. She was followed by an old man, also grey-headed and grey-bearded, wrinkled of face, his shoulders bent and twisted with rheumatism, his fingers gnarled and twisted. These two took the chairs set for them by Armorel. The third in the procession was a woman already elderly and with streaks of grey in her hair. She was thin and sharp-faced. She sat down before the spinning-wheel and began to work, not as you may now see the amateur, but in the quiet, quick, professional manner which means business.

The stranger was not quite right in his conjecture. They were not ancestors. The old man, who had worked on the farm, man and boy, for nearly seventy years, and now managed it altogether, was Justinian Tryeth. The old woman was Dorcas, his wife. The middle-aged woman was their daughter Chessun, who had been maid on the farm, as her brother Peter had been boy, all her life.

Whatever was intended was clearly a daily function, because each dropped into his own place without hesitation. The old woman had brought some knitting with her, her daughter picked up the thread of the spindle, and the old man, taking the tongs, stimulated the coals into a flame, which he continually nursed and maintained with new fuel. There was neither lamp nor candle in the room; the ruddy firelight, rising and falling, played about the room, warming the drab panels into crimson, sinking into the dark beams of the joists, flashing among the china in the cupboard, painting red the Venus's-fingers in the cabinet, and throwing strange lights and shadows upon the aged lady in the chair. Was she really alive? Was she, after all, only a mummy?

Roland looked on breathless. What was to be done next? Time had gone back eighty years-a hundred and eighty years-any number of years. As they sat here in the firelight with the spinning-wheel, the old serving-people with their mistress, without lamp or candle, so they sat in the generations long gone by. And again that curious feeling fell upon him that he had seen it all before. Yet he could not remember what was to be done next. Armorel, the tuning complete, turned with a look of inquiry to the old man.

'"Singleton's Slip,"' he commanded with the authority of a professor.

The girl began to play this old tune. Perhaps you remember the style of the fiddler-he is getting scarce now-who used to sit in the corner and play the hornpipe for the sailors in the days when every sailor could dance the hornpipe. Perhaps you do not remember that fiddler and his style. That is your misfortune. For there was a noble freedom in the handling of his bow, and the interpretation of his melodies was bold and original. He poured into the music all the spirit it was capable of containing, and drew out of his hearers every emotion that each particular tune was able to draw. Because you see tunes have their limitations. You cannot strike every chord in the human heart with a simple hornpipe. This sailor's best friend, however, did all that could be done. And always conscientious, if you please, never allowing his playing to become slovenly or to lack spirit.

Armorel played after the manner of this old fiddler, standing up to her work in the middle of the room.

'Singleton's Slip' is a ditty which was formerly much admired by those who danced the hey, the jig, or the simple country dance: it was also much played by the pipe and tabor upon the village green; it accompanied the bear when he carried the pole; it assisted those who danced on stilts; and it lent spirit to those who frolicked in the morrice. Charles II. knew it; Tom D'Urfey wrote words to it, I believe, but I have not yet found them in his collection; Rochester must certainly have danced to it. Armorel played it; first cheerfully and loudly, as if to arouse the spirits of those who listened, to remind them that legs may be shaken to this tune, and that ladies may be, and should be, when this tune begins, taken to their places and presently handed round and down the middle. Then she played it trippingly, as if they were actually all dancing. Then she played it tenderly-there is, if you come to think of it, a good deal of possible tenderness in the air-and, lastly, she played it joyfully, yet softly. How had she learned all these modes and moods?

While she played the old man listened critically, nodding his head and beating the time. Then, fired with memory, he bent his arms and worked his fingers as if they held the fiddle and the bow. And he threw back his head and thrust out his leg and leaned sideways, just like that jolly fiddler of whom we have just been reminded. Such, my friends, is the power of music.

After a little while Justinian stopped this imaginary performance, and sitting forward yielded himself wholly to the influence of the tune, cracking his fingers over his head and beating time with one foot, just as you may see the old villager in the old coloured prints-no villager in these days of bad beer ever cracks his fingers or shows any external signs of joyful emotion. As for the two serving-women, they reminded the spectator of the supers on the stage who march when they are told to march, sit down to feast when they are ordered, and swell a procession for a funeral or a festival, all with unmoved countenance, showing a philosophy so great that the triumph of victory or the disaster of defeat finds them equally calm and self-contained-that is to say, the two women showed no sense at all of being pleased or moved by 'Singleton's Slip.' They went on-one with her knitting and the other with her spinning.

As for the ancient lady, however, when the music began she straightened herself, sat upright, and opened her eyes. Then Chessun hastened to adjust her bonnet: if ladies sleep in their bonnets, these adornments have a tendency to fall out of the perpendicular. Heaven forbid that we should gaze upon Ursula Rosevean with her bonnet tilted, like a lady in a van coming home to Wapping from Fairlop Fair! This done, the venerable dame looked about her with eyes curiously bright and keen. Then she began to beat time with her fingers; and then she began to talk; but-and this added to the strangeness of the whole business-nobody seemed to regard what she said. It was much as if the Oracle of Delphi were pouring out the most valuable prophecies and none of her attendants paid any heed. 'If,' thought the young man, 'I were to take down her words, they would be a Message.' And what with the voice of the Oracle, the spirited fiddling, the firelight dancing about the room, the old man snapping his fingers, and perhaps some physical exhaustion following on the absence of dinner, the young man felt as if the music had got into his head; he wanted to get up and dance with Armorel round and round the room; he would not have marvelled had Dorcas and Justinian bidden him lead out Chessun and so take hands, round twice, down the middle and back again, set and turn single-where had he learnt these phrases and terms of the old country dance? Nowhere; they belonged to the place and to the music and to the time-and that was at least a hundred and eighty years back.

The fiddle stopped. Armorel held it down, and looked again at her master.

''Tis well played,' he said. 'A moving piece. Now, "Prince Rupert's March."'

She nodded, and began another tune. This is a piece which may

be played many ways. First, to those who understand it rightly, it indicates the tramp of an army, the riding of the cavalry, the jingling of sabres. Next, it may serve for a battle-piece, and you shall hear between the bars the charge of the horse and the clashing of the steel. Or, it may be played as a triumphal march after victory; or, again, as a country dance, in which a stately dignity takes the place of youthful mirth and merriment. At such a dance, to the tune of 'Prince Rupert's March,' the elders themselves-yea, the Justice of Peace, the Vicar, the Mayor and Aldermen, and the Head-borough himself-may stand up in line.

And now Roland became conscious of the old lady's words; he heard them clear and distinct, and as she talked the firelight fell upon her eyes, and she seemed to be gazing fixedly upon the stranger.

'When the "Princess Augusta," East Indiaman, struck upon the Castinicks in the middle of the night, she went to pieces in an hour-any vessel would. They said she was wrecked by the people of Samson, who tied a ship's lantern between the horns of a cow. But it was never proved. There are other islands in Scilly, and other islanders, if you talk of wrecking. Some of the dead bodies were washed ashore, and a good part of the cargo, so that there was something for everybody; a finer wreck never came to the islands. What! If a ship is bound to be wrecked, better that she should strike on British rocks and cast her cargo ashore for the king's subjects. Better the rocks of Scilly than the rocks of France. What the sea casts up belongs to the people who find it. That is just. But you must not rob the living. No. That is a great crime. 'Twas in the year '13. When Emanuel Rosevean, my father-in-law, rescued the passenger who was lying senseless lashed to a spar, he should not have taken the bag that was hanging round his neck. That was not well done. He should have given the man his bag again. He stood here before he went away. "You have saved my life," he said. "I had all my treasure in a bag tied about my neck. If I had brought that safe ashore I could have offered you something worth your acceptance. But I have nothing. I begin the world again." Emanuel heard him say this, and he let him go. But the bag was in his box. He kept the bag. Very soon the wrath of the Lord fell upon the house, and His Hand has been heavy upon us ever since. No luck for us-nor shall be any till we find the man and give him back his bag of treasure.'

She went on repeating this story with small variations and additions. But Roland was now listening again to the fiddle.

Armorel stopped again.

'"Dissembling Love,"' said her master.

She began that tune obediently.

The stranger within the gates seemed compelled to listen. His brain reeled; the old woman fascinated him. The words which he had heard had been few, but now he seemed to see, standing before the fire, his hair powdered, and in black silk stockings and shoes with steel buckles, the man who had been saved and robbed shaking hands with the man who had saved and robbed him. Oh! it was quite clear; he had seen it all before; he remembered it. This time he heard nothing of the tune.

'My husband, Methusalem, my dear husband, with his only brother, began to pay for that wickedness. They were capsized crossing to St. Mary's, and drowned. If I had thought what was going to happen I would have taken the bag and walked through all England looking for him until I had found him. Yes-if it took me fifty years. But I knew nothing. I thought our happiness would last for ever. Five-and-twenty years after, my son, Emanuel, was cast away in the Bristol Channel piloting a vessel. They struck on Steep Holm in a fog. And your own father, Armorel, was drowned with his wife and three boys on their way home from a wedding-feast at St. Agnes.'

Here her voice dropped, and Roland heard the concluding bars of 'Dissembling Love,' which Armorel was playing with quite uncommon tenderness.

When she stopped, Justinian gave her no rest. '"Blue Petticoats,"' he commanded.

Armorel again obeyed.

Then the old lady went back in memory to the days of her girlhood-now so long ago. Nowhere now can one find an old lady who will tell of her girlish days when the century was not yet arrived at the age of ten.

'We shall dance to-night,' she said, 'on Bryher Green. My boy will be there. We shall dance together. John Tryeth from Samson will play his fiddle. We shall dance "Prince Rupert's March" and "Blue Petticoats" and "Dissembling Love." The Ensign from the garrison is coming and the Deputy Commissary. They will drink my health. But they shall not have me for partner. My boy will be there-my own boy-the handsomest man on all the islands, though he is so black. That's the Spaniard in him. His mother was a Mureno-Honor Mureno, the last of the Murenos. He has got the old Spaniard's sword still. It's the Spanish blood. It gives my boy his black eyes and his black hair; it makes his cheeks swarthy; and it makes him proud and hot-tempered. I like a man to be quick and proud if he's strong and brave as well. When I have sons, the Lord make them all like their father!'

So she went on talking of her lover.

Armorel stopped and looked again at her master.

'"The Chirping of the Lark,"' he said.

Armorel began this tune. It is of an artificial character, lending itself less readily than the rest to emotion; the composer called it 'The Chirping of the Lark' because he wanted a title: it resembles the song of that warbler in no single particular. But it changed the old lady's current of thought.

'This long war,' she said, looking round cheerfully, 'will be the making of the islands if it lasts. Never was there so much money about: we roll in money: the women have all got silks and satins: the men drink port wine and the finest French brandy, which they run over for themselves: the merchantmen put into the road, and the sailors spend their money at the port. Why shouldn't we go on fighting the French until they haven't a ship left afloat? My man made the run last week, and hid the cargo-I know where. I shall help him to carry the kegs across to the garrison, where they want brandy badly. A fine run and a good day's work!'

She looked around with a jubilant countenance. Then another memory seized her, and the light left her eyes.

'Better be drowned yourself than marry a man who is going to be drowned! Better not marry at all than lose your husband six months afterwards. It is long ago, now, Armorel. Time goes on-one can remember. He would be very old now-yes-very old. Sometimes I see him still. But he has not grown old where he is staying. That is bad for me, because he liked young women, not old women. Men mostly do. They are so made, even the oldest of them. Perhaps the old women, when they rise again, are made young again, so that their lovers may love them still.'

The clock struck half-past eight. Armorel stopped playing and the old lady stopped talking at the same moment. Her eyes closed, her head fell forward, she became comatose.

Then the two serving-women got up and helped her, or carried her, out of the room to her bedroom behind. And the old man arose, and without so much as a good-night hobbled away to his own cottage.

'She will go to bed now,' said Armorel. 'Chessun will take in her broth and her wine, and she will sleep all night.'

'Do you have this performance every night?'

'Yes; the playing seems to put life and heart into her. All the morning she dozes, or if she wakes she is not often able to talk; but in the evening, when we sit around the fire just as they used to sit in the old days, without candles-because my people were poor and candles were dear-and when Chessun spins and I play-she revives and sits up and talks, as you have seen her.'

'Yes. It is rather ghostly.'

'Justinian used to play-oh! he could play very well indeed.'

'Not so well as you.'

'Yes-much better-and he knows hundreds of tunes. But his fingers became stiff with rheumatism, and, as he had put off teaching Peter until it was too late, he taught me. That is all.'

'I think you play wonderfully well. Do you play nothing but old tunes?'

'I only know what I have learned. There is that song which I heard the lady sing last year-I don't know what it is called. Tell me if you like it.'

She struck the strings again and played a song full of life and spirit, of tenderness and fond memory-a bright, sparkling song-which wanted no words.

'Oh!' cried Roland, 'you are really wonderful. You are playing the "Kerry Dance."'

She laughed and layed down the violin.

'We must not have any more playing to-night. Do you really like to hear me play? You look as if you did.'

'It is wonderful,' he replied. 'I could listen all night. But if there is to be no more music, shall we look outside?'

If there were no light in the house the ship's lantern was hanging up, with one of those big ship's candles in it which are of such noble dimensions, and of generosity so unbounded in the matter of tallow. There was no moon; but the sky was clear and the sea could be seen by the light of the stars, and the revolving lights of Bishop's Rock and St. Agnes flashed across the water.

The young man shivered.

'We are in fairyland,' he said. 'It is a charmed island. Nothing is real. Armorel, your name should be Titania. How have you made me hear and believe all these things? How do you contrive your sorceries? Are you an enchantress? Confess-you cannot, in sober truth, play those tunes; the old lady is in reality only a phantom, called into visible shape by your incantations? But you are a benevolent witch-you will not turn me into a pig?'

'I do not understand. There have been no sorceries. There are no witches left on the Scilly Islands. Formerly there were many. Dorcas knows about them. I do not know what was the good of them.'

'I suppose you are quite real, after all. It is only strange and incomprehensible.'

'It is a fine night. To-morrow it will be a fine day with a gentle breeze. We will go sailing among the Outer Islands.'

'The air is heavy with perfume. What is it? Surely an enchanted land!'

'It is the scent of the lemon-verbena tree-see, here is a sprig. It is very sweet.'

'How silent it is here! Night after night never to hear a sound.'

'Nothing but the sound of the waves. They never cease. Listen-it is a calm night. But you can hear them lapping on the beach.'

Ten minutes later, when they returned to the house, they found candles lighted and supper spread. A substantial supper, such as was owed to a man who had had no dinner. There was cold roast fowl and ham; there was a lettuce-salad and a goodly cheese. And there was the unexpected and grateful sight of a 'Brown George,' with a most delectable ball of white froth at the top. Also, Roland remarked the presence of the decanter containing the blackberry wine.

'Now you shall have some supper.' Armorel assumed the head of the table and took up the carving-knife. 'No, thank you-I can carve very well. Besides, you are our visitor, and it is a pleasure to carve for you. Will you have a wing or a leg? Do you like your ham thin? Not too thin? Oh, how hungry you must be! That is ale-home-brewed ale: will you take some? or would you prefer a glass of the blackberry wine? No?-help yourself.'

'The beer for me,' said Roland. He filled and drank a tumbler of the beverage dear to every right-minded Briton. It was strong and generous, with flakes of hop floating in it like the bee's-wing in port. 'This is splendid beer,' he said. 'I do not remember that I ever tasted such beer as this. It is humming ale-October ale-stingo. No wonder our forefathers fought so well when they had such beer as this to fight upon!'

'Peter is proud of his home-brewed.'

'Do you make everything for yourselves? Is Samson sufficient for all the needs of the islanders? This beer is the beer of Samson-strong and mighty. My hair is growing long already-and curly.'

'We make all we can. There are no shops, you see, on Samson. We bake our own bread: we brew our own beer: we make our own butter: we even spin our own linen.'

'And you make your own wine, Armorel.' He called her naturally by her Christian name. You could not call such a girl 'Miss Armorel' or 'Miss Rosevean.' 'It is a wonderful island!'

After supper they sat by the fireside, and, by permission, he smoked his pipe.

Then, everybody else on the island being in bed and asleep, they talked. The young man had his way. That is to say, he encouraged the girl to talk about herself. He led her on: he had a soft voice, soft eyes, and a general manner of sympathy which surprised confidence.

She began, timidly at first, to talk about herself, yet with feminine reservation. No woman will ever talk about herself in the way which delights young men. But she told him all he asked: her simple lonely life-how she arose early in the morning, how she roamed about the island and sang aloud with none to hear her but the sea-gulls and the shags.

'Do you never draw?' he asked.

She had tried to draw, but there was no one to help her.

'Do you read?'

No, she seldom read. In the best parlour there was a bookcase full of books, but she never looked at them. As for the old lady and Dorcas, they had never learned to read. She had been at school over at St. Mary's, till she was thirteen, but she hardly cared to read.

'And the newspapers-do you ever read them?'

She never read them. She knew nothing that went on.

As for her ambitions and her hopes-if he could get at them. Fond youth!-as if a girl would ever tell her ambitions! But Armorel, apparently, had none to tell. She lived in the present; it was joy enough for her to wander in the soft warm air of her island home, upon the hills and round the coast, to cruise among the rocks while the breeze filled out the sail and the sparkling water leaped above the bow.

So far she told: nay, she hid nothing, because there was nothing to hide. She told no more because, as yet, her ambitions and her dreams of the future had no shape: they were vague and misty-she was only aware of their existence when restlessness seized her and impelled her to get up and run over the hills to Porth Bay and back again.

But at night, when she went to bed, she experienced quite a new and disquieting sensation. It showed at least that she was no longer a child, but already on the threshold of womanhood. With blushing cheek and beating heart she remembered that for an hour and more she had been talking about nothing but herself! What would Mr. Roland Lee think of a girl who could waste his time in talking about nothing but herself?

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