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   Chapter 6 THE FLOWER-FARM

Armorel of Lyonesse By Walter Besant Characters: 30079

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


Roland, startled out of sleep by the sudden feeling of danger which always seizes us in a strange bed-except a bed at an inn-sat up and looked around him. His room was small and low and simply furnished. He was lying on a feather bed of the old-fashioned kind; the bedstead was of wood, but without curtains. He presently remembered where he was: on Samson Island-the guest of a child, a girl of fifteen.

He sprang out of bed and threw open the window. His room was over the porch. The fragrance of the lemon-verbena tree arose like steam from a haystack, and filled his chamber. Below him, and beyond the garden, the geese waddled on the green, the ducks splashed in the pond, and in the farmyard Peter walked about slowly, carrying a pitchfork in his hands, but, apparently, for amusement rather than use, as if it had been a court sword.

He looked at his watch. It was half-past seven. At this time in London he would have been still in the first long slumber of the night. Now he was eager to be up and dressed, if only for a better understanding of the situation. To be the guest of a child has the freshness of novelty; but it is a situation which might lead to complications. Suppose a guardian, or a lawyer, or a cousin of some kind were to cross over in a boat and ask what he was doing there. And suppose he had no better reply than the plain truth-that this young lady had been so good as to invite him. Would a man go down to stay at a country house on the simple invitation of a school-girl? At the same time, this girl appeared to be the mistress of the establishment. There was an ancient lady-too old for superintendence-and there were servants. Well, if no guardian challenged his presence, why, then, for a single day-he must not stay more-it surely mattered little. The girl was but a child. Yet he must not stay longer. Perhaps they were not too well off: he must not be a burden. And, again, though the girl invited him to stay she named no limit of time. She did not invite him to stay, for a week or for a fortnight. Perhaps she expected him to go away that very morning.

He proceeded-with somewhat thoughtful countenance, considering these things-to dress, paying as much attention to his personal appearance as a young man should, and an old man must. It is the privilege of middle-aged men to go slovenly if they please: no one regardeth him of middle age. While their locks are turning grey and their children are growing up they are in the thick of the day's work, and they may disregard, if they choose, the mysteries of the toilette. Apollo, however, must be as jealous about his apparel and adornment as the Graces themselves, who are always represented at the moment before the choice is made. A velvet jacket and a white waistcoat are trifles in themselves, but they become a youthful figure and a face which has finely-cut features and is decorated with a promising silky beard, pointed withal, and the brown shading of a young moustache. Besides, he who is an artist thinks more than other young men about such things. Dress, to him, as to a woman, becomes costume. Colour has to be considered; such picturesqueness as is possible in modern fashion is aimed at; the artistic craving for fitness and beauty must be satisfied. Roland did what he could: and with his velvet coat, a clean white waistcoat, a crimson scarf, a good figure, and a handsome face, he was as handsome a youth of twenty-one as one is likely to find anywhere.

Again, as he opened his door and began to descend the narrow stairs, there came over him that curious feeling of having been in the place before. He had felt it in the evening when Armorel played 'Dissembling Love.' Now he felt it again. And when he stood in the porch he seemed to remember standing there once-long ago, long ago-but how long he could not tell; nor, as happened to him before, could he remember what had happened on that occasion.

Armorel herself was in the garden looking for some flowers for the breakfast-table. She greeted him with a smile of welcome and a friendly grasp of the hand. There was also a look of kindly solicitude on her face which would have suited a chatelaine of forty years. Had he slept well? Had he really been provided with everything he wanted? Was there anything at all lacking? If so, would he speak to Chessun? Breakfast, she said, leaving him in the garden, would be served in a few minutes.

Would he speak to Chessun? Then, it seemed as if she meant him to stay another night. What should he do?

Then Armorel came back.

'Breakfast is quite ready,' she said. 'Come in, Roland Lee. It is a beautiful morning. There is a fresh breeze and a smooth sea. We can go anywhere this morning. I have spoken to Peter, and he will be ready to go with us in an hour or so. I think we may even get out to Scilly and Maiden Bower.'

Yes; the morning was bright and the sky was clear. In the golden sunshine of September the islets across the water showed like creations of a poet's dream.

Roland drew a deep breath of admiration. 'Everybody,' he said, 'ought to come to Scilly and to stay a long time.'

He turned from the view to the girl beside him. She had changed her blue flannel dress for a daintier and a prettier costume-think not that there are no shops at Hugh Town-of grey nun's cloth, daintily embroidered in front. Still at her throat she wore a red flower, and round her neck clung the golden torque found in the old king's grave. Her dark eyes glowed: her lips were parted in a smile: her cheek showed the dewy bloom that some girls, fortunate above their sisters, can exhibit when they first appear in the morning: her long tresses were now tied up and confined; she looked as if she had just stepped forth from her chamber, fresh from her sleep. No one certainly could have guessed that she had been up since six; nor that the fish which had been hissing in the frying-pan, and were now lying meekly side by side in a dish on the breakfast-table, were of her own catching. An hour's sitting in the boat off Samson Ledge with hook and line had procured this splendid contribution to the morning banquet. Fish fragrant with the salt sea: fish that had not been packed tight in boxes, nor travelled in railway trains, nor been slapped about on counters, nor been packed in ice; fish that can never lie on a London table-these were set out before Roland's hungry gaze.

The ancient dame did not appear. The two breakfasted, as they had supped, together. I do not know how or where Armorel learned the art and practice of hospitality, but certainly she showed a true feeling in the matter of feeding-especially at breakfast. First, the table was decorated with the autumn leaves of the bramble-crimson, yellow, purple-few, indeed, know how beautiful a table may be made when decorated with these leaves. There were also a few late flowers from the garden; but not many. The coffee was strong, the milk hot and thick, the bread and butter home-made, like the beer of yester eve: the ham was cured by Chessun: the eggs were collected by Armorel: she had also with her own hands made the jam and the cake.

Armorel sat behind the cups with as much ease as if she had been accustomed from infancy to entertain young gentlemen at breakfast. She was serious over her task, and poured out the coffee as if it was something precious, not to be wasted or carelessly administered, which is the spirit in which all good food should be approached. She did not ask any questions, nor did she talk much during the banquet. Perhaps she had an instinctive perception of the great truth that breakfast, which is taken at the beginning of the day-the sacred day, with all its possibilities and its chances of what may happen; the fateful day, which alone and unaided may change the whole course and current of a life-should be approached with a becoming gravity. At breakfast the man fortifies himself before he goes forth to work. But he has the work before him. In the evening it is done: he has passed through the dangers of the day: he still lives: he has received no hurt: he has, we hope, prospered in his honest handiwork: he may laugh and rejoice. But at breakfast we should be serious.

'What will you do,' asked Armorel, breakfast completed, 'until Peter is ready? He has got some work, you know, before he can come out.'

'I should like first,' he said, 'to see your flower-farm, if I may.'

'If you please. But there is nothing to see at this time of the year. You must not think we grow flowers all the year round. If you were here in February, you would see the fields covered with beautiful flowers-iris, anemone, jonquil, narcissus, and daffodil. They are very pretty then, and the air is sweet with their scent. But now the fields are quite bare.'

'I should like to see them, however.'

'I will show them to you. It is a great happiness to the islands,' said Armorel, gravely, 'that we have found out the flower-farming. Everybody was very poor before. All the old ways of living were gone, you see. A long time ago the people had wrecks every winter-the sea cast up quantities of things which they could sell, or they went out in boats and took the things out of the hold when the ship was on the rocks. And then they were all smugglers: the Scillonians used to run over to France openly, day and night, with no one to stop them. And they used to carry fruit and vegetables out to the homeward-bound ships in the Channel. And then they were pilots as well. Some of the men used to make as much as two hundred pounds a year as pilots. My grandfathers were all pilots. They were smugglers too; and they had this farm and grew vegetables for the ships. Then the Government built the lighthouses, and there were no more wrecks; and the Preventive Service came and stopped the smuggling; and since the steamers took the place of the sailing-ships no vessels put in here, and there are no more pilots wanted. So, you see, it was as if nothing was left at all.'

'It does seem rough on the people.'

'First they tried kelp-making. They collected the sea-weed and put it in a kiln or furnace, and made a fire under it. I can show you some of the old furnaces still. But that came to an end. Then they tried a fishing company; but I believe it did not pay. And then they began to build ships; but I suppose other people could build them better. So that came to an end too. And for some time I do not know how all the people lived. As for the farms, they could never grow enough for the islands. Then a great many of the people went away. They had to go, or they would have starved. Some went to England, and some to America, and some to Australia. All the families went away from Samson, one by one, until at last there were none left but ourselves and Justinian. On Bryher and St. Martin's they became fishermen, but not here. As for Justinian, he sent away all his boys except Peter. Oh! they have done very well-splendidly. One is a coastguard, and one is bo's'n in the Queen's Navy. One is captain of a steamer trading between Philadelphia and Cuba, and one is actually chief steward on a great Pacific liner! Justinian is very proud of him.'

'Indeed, yes,' said Roland, 'with reason.'

'The Scillonians,' the girl continued, proudly, 'all get on very well wherever they go. They are honest, you see, as well as clever.'

'And the flower-farming?'

'Somebody discovered that the early spring flowers, which begin here in January, could be carried to London and sold quite fresh. And then everybody began to plant bulbs. That is all. We have had a farm of some kind here for I do not know how many generations.'

'Since the time,' Roland suggested, 'when, in consequence of the separation of Scilly from the mainland and the disappearance of Lyonesse, the royal family found themselves left in Samson.'

She laughed. 'Well, all these stone inclosures on the hill belonged to our farm. We grew things and ate them, I suppose. Perhaps we sold them. But we were then poor, I know, and now we have no more trouble.'

Beside and behind the farmhouse on the slope of the hill they came upon a series of little fields following one after the other. They were quite small-some mere patches, none larger than a garden of ordinary size, and they were all enclosed and shut in by high hedges, so that they looked like largish boxes with the lids off. Some of the hedges were of elm, growing thick and close; some of escallonia, with its red flowers; some of veronica, its purple blossom like heads of bulrush; some of the service-tree; and some, but not many, of tamarisk, its pink bunches of blossom all displayed at this time of the year. But the fields were now brown and bare, and had nothing at all growing in them, except a few patches of gladiolus, now dying. Beyond these fields, however, there were others of larger area, with ruder hedges formed by laths, reeds, wooden palings, and stone walls. These were inclosed, and partly sheltered for the growth of vegetables.

'These are our fields,' said Armorel. 'At this time of the year there is nothing to show you. Our harvest begins in January, and lasts till May; but February and March are our best months. See-there is Peter, with a young man from Bryher, planting bulbs for next year: they are taken up every three years and replanted.'

Peter, in fact, was at work. He was superintending-a form of work which he found to suit him best-while the young man from Bryher, who looked more than half sailor, with a broad, long-handled spade, was leisurely turning over the light sandy soil and laying in the bulbs side by side out of a great basket.

'It seems an easy form of agriculture,' said Roland.

'It is not hard. There is nothing to do after this until the flowers are picked. But sometimes a cold wind will come down from the north and will kill a whole field full of blossoms-in spite of all our hedges. That is a terrible loss. When everything goes well, we cut the flowers, pack them in boxes, carry them over to the port, and next morning they are sold in London-oh! and all over the country, in every big town.'

'I shall never again behold a daffodil in February,' said Roland, 'without thinking of Samson. You have lent a new association to the spring flowers. Henceforth they will bring back this glorious view of sea and islands, grey and black rocks, the splendid sunshine and the fresh breeze-and,' he added, with a winning smile and deferential eyes, 'the Lady of Lyonesse.'

Armorel laughed. It was very nice to be called the Lady of Lyonesse-nobody before had ever called her anything except plain Armorel. And it was quite a new experience to have a young gentleman treating her with deference as well as compliment.

At the back of the house was an orchard, through which they presently passed. Like the flower-fields, it was protected by a high hedge. But the apple-trees looked like the olives of Provence: every one seemed in the last decay of age. They were twisted and dwarfish;

the branches grew in queer angles and elbows, as if they were crouching down out of reach of the north wind; the trunks were bent, and, which completed their resemblance to the olive, all alike were covered and clothed with a thick grey lichen, clinging to every bough like a glove, and hanging like a fringe. If you tear it off, the tree begins to shiver and shake, though on Samson it is never cold.

'Let us sit down,' said Roland, 'in this secluded spot and talk. Have I your leave, Armorel, to-- Thank you.' He filled and lit his briar-root, and lay back on the warm bank, gazing upwards at the blue sky through the leaves and the twisted branches of an aged apple-tree.

'It is good to be here. Do you know how very, very good it was of you to ask me, Armorel? And do you know how very, very rash it was?'

The girl, who showed her youth and inexperience in many little ways, regarded him with admiration unconcealed. Certainly, he was a personable young man, even picturesque; when his beard should be a little longer, when his moustache should be a little stronger, he might be able to pass for Charles I. idealised, and in early manhood, when as yet he had not begun to dissimulate.

'I was so glad when you promised to stay,' she replied, truthfully.

'Again, it is most good of you to say so. But, Armorel, a dreadful misgiving has possessed me. Does your-does the Ancestress approve of the invitation?'

Armorel laughed. 'Why,' she said, 'we never consult her about anything. She is too old, you know.'

'Was nobody consulted at all? Did you ask me here all out of your own head, as the children say?'

'Why not? There is nobody to consult. Why should I not ask you?'

'It was very good of you-only-well-you are younger than most ladies who invite people to their house.'

'Well-but I asked you,' she replied, with a little irritation, 'and you said you would come. You asked if anybody could stay on the island.'

'Yes, of course.' He did not explain that at first he thought the place was a lodging-house. The mistake was not unnatural; but he could not explain. 'I ought to have known,' he said. 'You are the Queen of Samson, as well as a Princess in Lyonesse. I beg your Majesty to forgive the ignorance of a traveller from foreign parts.'

'Justinian and Peter manage the farm. Dorcas and Chessun manage the house. There is no one to ask,' she added, simply, 'what I am doing.'

She said this with a touch of sadness.

'Have you no relations-cousins-nobody?'

'I have some far-off cousins. They live in London, I believe. One of them went away-a long, long time ago, in the Great War-and became a purser in the Navy. After that he was purveyor for the Fleet, and was made a knight. He was my grandfather's cousin, so I suppose he is dead by this time, but I dare say he has left children.'

'You are very lonely, Armorel.'

'I had three brothers; but they were all drowned-father, mother, three brothers, all drowned together coming from St. Agnes. That was ten years ago, when I was only a little girl and did not know what it meant. All our misfortunes, my great-great-grandmother says, are due to the wickedness of her husband's father, who took a bag of treasure from the neck of a passenger rescued from a wreck. You heard her last night. Do you think that God would drown my innocent brothers and my innocent father and mother all on the same day, because, eighty years ago, that wicked thing was done?'

'No, Armorel. I can believe a great deal, but that I cannot believe.'

'And so, you see, I am quite alone. Why should I not invite you to stay here?'

'There is not, in reality, Armorel, any reason, except that you did not know anything about me.'

'Oh! but I saw you and talked with you.'

'Yes; but that was not enough. We do not ask people into our houses unless we know something about them.'

'I could see that you were a gentleman.'

'You are very good to think so. Let me try to justify that belief. But, Armorel, seriously, there are thieves and rogues and wicked men in the world. Some of these may come to Scilly. Do not ask another stranger. Believe me, it is dangerous. As for me, you have shown me your flower-farm and have entertained me hospitably: let me thank you and take my departure.'

'Go away? Take your departure? Why?' Armorel looked ready to cry. 'You have only just come. You have seen nothing.'

'Do you wish me to stay another night?'

'Of course I do. What is it, Roland Lee? You have got something on your mind. Why should you not stay?'

'I should like somebody,' he replied, weakly, 'to approve. If the Ancestress, or even Dorcas, or Chessun herself, would approve--'

'Why, of course Dorcas approves. She says it is the best thing in the world for me to have someone here to talk to. She said so yesterday evening, and again this morning.'

'In that case, Armorel, and since it is so delightful here-and so new-and since you are so kind, I will stay one more day.'

He remembered his friend's warning, and the grumpiness which he showed on the way back. His conscience smote him, but not severely. He would be very careful. And, after all, she was but a child. He would just stay the one day and make a sketch or two. Then he would go away.

'That is settled, then. One more day-or, perhaps, one more week, or a month, or a year,' she said, laughing. 'And now, before Peter is ready, I must leave you for ten minutes, because I have to make a cake for your tea this evening. As for dinner, we shall have that in the boat, or on one of the islands. It is my business, you know, to make the puddings and the cakes.'

'Armorel-you shall not. I would rather go without.'

'You shall certainly not go without a cake. Why, I like to make things. It would be dull here indeed if I had not got things to do all day long.'

'Do you not find it dull sometimes, even with things to do?'

'Perhaps. Sometimes. I suppose we are all of us tempted to be discontented at times, even when we have so many blessings as I enjoy.' Armorel was young enough, you see, to talk the language of her nurses and serving-women.

'How do you get through the day?'

'I get up at six o'clock, except in winter, when it is too dark. I have a run with Jack after breakfast; we run up the hill and down the other side-round Porth Bay, just to see the waves beating on White Island Ledge, where you very nearly--'

'Very nearly,' Roland echoed, 'but for you.'

'Then we run up Bryher Hill and stand on the carn just for Jack to bark at the north wind.'

'Sometimes it rains.'

'Oh, yes-and sometimes it blows such a gale of wind that I could not stand on the carn for a moment. Then I stay at home and make or mend something. There are always things to be made or mended. Then we are always wanting stores of some kind or other, and I have to go over to Hugh Town and buy them. At Hugh Town there are shops where they keep beautiful things-you can buy anything you want at Hugh Town. We cannot make pins and needles at home, can we? Then we have dinner, and Granny is brought in. Sometimes she wakes up then, and gets lively, and knows everything that is going on. She will talk quite sensibly for an hour at a time. And I have my fiddle to practise. After tea, when the days are long enough, I go up on the hills again and wander about till dark.'

'And do you never have any companions at all?' he asked with a curious, unreasoning, perfectly inexcusable touch of jealousy, because it could not matter to him even if all the young men of St. Mary's and Bryher and Tresco and St. Martin's came over every Sunday to court this dainty damsel. Yet he did feel the least bit anxious.

'Never any companions. Nobody ever comes here. They used to come, when Granny was still able to talk, in order to ask her advice. She was so wise, you see.'

'And every evening you make music for the Ancestress and the worthy Tryeth family?'

'Yes, and then I have supper and go to bed. Generally by nine o'clock we are all asleep in the house.'

'It would be a monotonous life if you were older. But it is only a preliminary or a preparation to something else. It is the overture, played in soft music, to the happy comedy of your future life, Armorel.'

'You mean to say something kind,' she replied. 'Of course, my life must seem dull to you.'

'One cannot always live on lovely skies and sunlit seas and enchanted islands.'

'Sometimes it seems to me that a little more talk would be pleasant. Justinian talks very well, to be sure; but he is the only one. He knows quantities of wrecks. It would astonish you to hear him tell of the wrecks he has seen. Dorcas talks very little now, because she has lost all her teeth. Chessun is a silent woman, because she's always been kept under by her mother. And Peter's not a talkative boy, because he's always been kept under both by his father and his mother. Besides, he got that nasty fall which made all his hair fall off. You can't wonder if he thinks about that a good deal. And they are all getting old.'

'Yes. They seem to be getting very old indeed. Some day they will follow the example of other old people and vanish. Then, Armorel, you will be like Robinson Crusoe or Alexander Selkirk.'

'I know all about Alexander Selkirk. He lived alone on Juan Fernandez, having been put ashore by Captain Stradling, of the "Cinque Ports." He had been four years and four months on the island when Captain Woodes Rogers found him. He was clothed in goat-skin. He built two huts with pimento-trees, and covered them with long grass and lined them with the skin of goats. He made fire by rubbing two sticks together on his knee. And he lived by catching goats. You mean, Roland Lee,' she said, with great seriousness, 'that some day or other all these old people will die-my great-great-grandmother, Justinian, Dorcas, and even Peter and Chessun, and that then I shall be alone on the island. That would be terrible. But it will not happen in that way. I am sure it will not, because it would be so very terrible. We are in the Lord's hand, and it will not be allowed.'

The young man coloured and dropped his eyes. There certainly was not a single girl of all those whom he knew in London who could have said such a thing so simply and so sincerely. Not the youngest girl fresh from the most religious teaching could say such a thing. Yet they go to church a good deal oftener than Armorel, whose chances were only once a week, and then only when the weather was fine. This it is to be a Scillonian, and to believe what you hear in church. Roland had no reply to make. Even to hint that faith so simple and so complete was rare would have been cruel and wicked.

'You have quoted Woodes Rogers,' he said presently. 'Have you read that good old navigator? It is not often that one finds a girl quoting from Woodes Rogers.'

'Oh! I do not read much. There is a bookcase full of books; but I only read the voyages. There is a whole row of them. Woodes Rogers, Shelvocke, Commodore Anson, Wallis, Carteret, and Cook-and more besides. I like Carteret best, because his ship was so small and so crazy, and his men so few and so weak, and yet he would keep on traversing the ocean as long as he could, and discovered a great deal more than his commander, who cowardly deserted him.'

'There are other things in the world besides voyages-and other books.'

'I learned the other things at school. There was geography-the world is only the Scilly Islands spread out big-and history, too. You would be surprised to find what a lot of English history there is that belongs to Scilly. Queen Elizabeth built the Star Fort-you've seen the Star Fort on the Garrison. There is Charles the First's Castle, on Tresco, all in ruins; and, down below it, Cromwell's Castle, which I will show you. And Charles the Second stayed here. Oh! and there was the Spanish Armada; I must not forget that, because of another great-great-far-off-great-grandfather, three hundred years ago, who was wrecked here.'

'How was that?'

'He was a captain, or officer of some kind, on board one of the Spanish ships; his name was Don Hernando Mureno. After the Armada was defeated and driven away, some of the ships came down the Irish Sea, and among them his ship-and she ran ashore on one of the Outer Islands-I think on Maiden Bower. How many were saved I cannot tell you; but some were, and among them Don Hernando Mureno himself. He stayed here, and never wanted to go away any more; but married a Scillonian, and lived out his life on Bryher, and is buried at the old church at St. Mary's, where I could show you his grave and the headstone-though the letters are all gone by this time. I have his sword still, and I will show it to you. One of my grandfathers married his granddaughter. They say I take after the Spanish side.'

'You are a true Castilian, Armorel; unless, indeed, you happen to be an Andalusian or a Biscayan.'

'Do you think I ought to read the other books?' she asked him, anxiously. 'If you really think so, I will try-I will, really.'

I suppose that no young man-not even the most hardened lecturers at Newnham-ever becomes quite indifferent to the spectacle of Venus entrusting the care of her intellect to a young philosopher. It is a moving spectacle, and still novel. It makes a much more beautiful picture than that of Venus handing over the care of her soul to the Shaven and Shorn. Roland coloured. He felt at once the responsibility and the delicacy of the task thus offered him.

'We will look into the shelves,' he said. 'I suppose that the Ancestress no longer reads?'

'She never learned to read at all. She can neither read nor write: yet there was never anyone who knew so much. She could cure all diseases, and the people came over here from all the islands for her advice. Dorcas knew a great deal, but she does not know the half or the quarter of her mistress's knowledge.'

'Armorel'-Roland knocked out the ashes of his pipe-'I think you want-very badly-someone to advise you.'

'Will you advise me, Roland Lee?'

'Child'-he slowly got up-'all my life, so far, I have been looking for someone to advise and help myself. You must not lean upon a reed. Come-let us seek Peter the boy, and launch the ship and go forth upon our voyage about this sea of many islands. Perchance we may discover Circe upon one of them-unless you are yourself Circe-and I shall presently find myself transformed; but you are too good to turn me into anything except a prince or a poet. And we may light upon St. Brandan's Land; or we may find Judas Iscariot floating on that island of red-hot brass; or we may chance on Andromeda, and witness the battle of Perseus and the dragon; or we may find the weeping Ariadne-everything is possible on an island.'

'Roland Lee,' said the girl, 'you are talking like your friend Dick Stephenson. Why do you say such extravagant things? This is the island of Samson, and I am nothing in the world but Armorel Rosevean.'

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