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   Chapter 7 A VOYAGE OF DISCOVERY

Armorel of Lyonesse By Walter Besant Characters: 17287

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


All day long the boat sailed about among the channels and over the shallow ledges of the Outer or Western Islands, whither no boat may reach save on such a day, so quiet and so calm. The visitor who comes by one boat and goes away by the next thinks he has seen this archipelago. As well stand inside a great cathedral for half an hour and then go away thinking you have seen it all. It takes many days to see these fragments of Lyonesse, and to get a time sense of the place. They sailed round the southern point of Samson, and they steered westward, leaving Great Minalto on the lee, towards Mincarlo, lying, like an old-fashioned sofa, high at the two ends and flat in the middle. They found a landing at the southern point, and clambered up the steep and rocky sides of the low hill. On this island there are four peaks with a down in the middle, all complete. It is like a doll's island. Everywhere in Scilly there are the same features: here a hill strewn with boulders; here a little down, with fern and gorse and heath; here a bay in which the water, on such days as it can be approached, peacefully laps a smooth white beach; here dark caves and holes in which the water always, even in the calmest day of summer, grumbles and groans, and, when the least sea rises, begins to roar and bellow-in time of storm it shrieks and howls. Those who sail round these rumbling water-dungeons begin to think of sea monsters. Hidden in those recesses the awful calamary lies watching, waiting, his tentacles forty feet long stretching out in the green water, floating innocently till they touch their prey, then seizing and haling it within sight of the baleful, gleaming eyes and within reach of the devouring mouth. In these holes, too, lie the great conger-eels-they fear nothing that swims except that calamary; and in these recesses walk about the huge crabs which devour the dead bodies of shipwrecked sailors. On the sunlit rocks one looks to see a mermaiden, with glittering scales, combing out her long fair tresses: perhaps one may unfortunately miss this beautiful sight, which is rare even in Scilly; but one cannot miss seeing the seals flopping in the water and swimming out to sea, with seeming intent to cross the broad ocean. And in windy weather porpoises blow in the shallow waters of the sounds. All round the rocks at low tide hangs the long sea-weed, undisturbed since the days when they manufactured kelp, like the rank growth of a tropical creeper: at high tide it stands up erect, rocking to and fro in the wash and sway of the water like the tree-tops of the forest in the breeze. Everywhere, except in the rare places where men come and go, the wild sea-birds make their nests; the shags stand on the ledges of the highest rocks in silent rows gazing upon the water below; the sea-gulls fly, shrieking in sea-gullic rapture-there is surely no life quite so joyous as a sea-gull's; the curlews call; the herons sail across the sky; and, in spring, millions of puffins swim and dive and fly about the rocks, and lay their eggs in the hollow places of these wild and lonely islands.

These things, which one presently expects and observes without wonder in all the islands, were new to Roland when he set foot on the rugged rock of Mincarlo. He climbed up the steep sides of the rock and stood upon the top of its highest peak. He made two or three rapid sketches of rock and sea, the girl looking over his shoulder, watching curiously, for the first time in her life, the growth of a picture.

Watching curiously, for the first time in her life, the growth of a picture.

Then he stood and looked around. The great stones were piled about; the brown turf crept up their sides; where there was space to grow, the yellow branches of the fern were spread; and on all four sides lay the shining water.

'All my life,' he said, 'I have dreamed of islands. This is true joy, Armorel. For a permanency, Samson is better than Mincarlo, because there is more of it. But to come here sometimes-to sit on this carn while the wind whistles in your ear, and the waves are lapping against the rocks all day long and always--Armorel, is there any other world? Are there men and women living somewhere? Is there anybody but you and me-and Peter?' he added, hastily. 'I don't believe in London. It is a dream. Everything is a dream but the islands and the boat and Armorel.'

She was only a child, but she turned a rosy red at the compliment. Nothing but the boat and herself. She was very fond of the boat, you see, and she felt that the words conveyed a high compliment. Then they began to explore the rest of this mountainous island, which has such a variety of scenery all packed away in the small space of twelve acres. When they had walked over the whole of Mincarlo that is accessible, they returned to their landing-place, where Peter sat in the boat keeping her off, with head bent as if he was asleep.

'It must be half-past twelve,' said Armorel. 'I am sure you are hungry. We will have dinner here.'

'No better place for a picnic. Come along, Peter. Bear a hand with the basket. Here, Armorel, is a rock that will do for a table, and here is one on which we two can sit. There is a rock for you, Peter. Now! The opening of a luncheon-basket is always a moment of grave anxiety. What have we got?'

'This is a rabbit-pie,' said Armorel. 'And this is a cake-pudding. I made it yesterday. Do you like cake-pudding? Here are bread and salt and things. Can you make your dinner off a rabbit-pie, Roland Lee?'

'A very good dinner too.' The young man now understood that on Samson one uses the word dinner instead of lunch, and that supper is an excellent cold spread served at eight. 'A very good dinner, Armorel. I mean to carve this. Sit down and let me see you make a good dinner.'

An admirable rabbit-pie, and an excellent cake-pudding. Also, there had not been forgotten a stone jar filled with that home-brewed of which the like can no longer be found in any other spot in the British Islands. I hope one need do no more than indicate the truly appreciative havoc wrought by the young gentleman among all these good gifts and blessings.

After dinner, to lie in the sunshine and have a pipe, looking across the wide stretch of sunny water to the broken line of rocks and the blue horizon beyond, was happiness undeserved. Beside him sat the girl, anxious that he should be happy-thinking of nothing but what might best please her guest.

Then they got into the boat again, and sailed half a mile or so due north by the compass, until they came within another separate archipelago, of which Mincarlo is an outlying companion.

It is the group of rocks, called the Outer or the Western Islands, lying tumbled about in the water west of Bryher and Samson. Some of them are close together, some are separated by broad channels. Here the sea is never calm: at the foot of the rocks stretch out ledges, some of them bare at low water, revealing their ugly black stone teeth: the swell of the Atlantic on the calmest days rises and falls and makes white eddies, broken water, and flying spray. Among these rocks they rowed: Peter and Roland taking the oars, while Armorel steered. They rowed round Maiden Bower, with its cluster of granite forts defying the whole strength of the Atlantic, which will want another hundred thousand years to grind them down-about and among the Black Rocks and the Seal Rocks, dark and threatening: they landed on Ilyswillig, with his peak of fifty feet, a strange wild island: they stood on the ledge of Castle Bryher and looked up at the tower of granite which rises out of the water like the round keep of a Norman castle: they hoisted sail and stood out to Scilly himself, where his twin rocks command the entrance to the islands. Scilly is of the dual number: he consists of two great mountains rising from the water sheer, precipitous, and threatening: each about eighty feet high, but with the air of eight hundred; each black and square and terrible of aspect: they are separated by a narrow channel hardly broad enough for a boat to pass through.

'One day last year,' said Armorel-'it was in July, after a fortnight of fine weather-we went through this channel, Peter and I-didn't we, Peter? It was a dead calm, and at high tide.'

The boy nodded his head.

The channel was now, the tide being nearly high, like a foaming torrent, through which the water raced and rushed, boiling into whirlpools, foaming and tearing at the sides. The rapids below Niagara are not fiercer than was this channel, though the day was so fair and the sea without so quiet.

'O

nce,' said Peter, breaking the silence, 'there was a ship cast up by a wave right into the fork of the channel. She went to pieces in ten minutes, for she was held in a vice like, while the waves beat her into sticks. Some of the men got on to the north rock-what they call "Cuckoo"-and there they stuck till the gale abated. Then people saw them from Bryher, and a pilot-boat put off for them.'

'So they were saved?' said Roland.

'No, they were not saved,' Peter replied, slowly. ''Twas this way: the pilot-boat that took them off the rock capsized on the way home. So they was all drowned.'

'Poor beggars! Now, if they had been brought safe ashore we might have been told what these rocks look like in rough weather: and what Scilly is like when you have climbed it: and how a man feels in the middle of a storm on Scilly.'

'You can see very well what it is like from Samson,' said Armorel. 'The waves beat upon the rocks, and the white spray flies over them and hides them.'

'I should like to hear as well as to see,' said Roland. 'Fancy the thunder of the Atlantic waves against this mass of rock, the hissing and boiling in the channel, the roaring of the wind and the dashing of the waves! I wonder if any of these shipwrecked men had a sketch-book in his pocket.

'To be drowned,' he continued, 'just by the upsetting of a boat, and after escaping death in a much more exciting manner! Their companions were torn from the deck and hurled and dashed against the rock, so that in a moment their bones were broken to fragments, and the fragments themselves were thrown against the rocks till there was nothing left of them. And these poor fellows clung to the rock, hiding under a boulder from the driving wind-cold, starving, wet, and miserable. And just as they thought of food and shelter and warmth again, to be taken and plunged into the cold water, there to roll about till they were drowned! A dreadful tragedy!'

Having thus broken the ice, Peter proceeded to relate more stories of shipwreck, taking after his father, Justinian Tryeth, whose conversational powers in this direction were, according to Armorel, unrivalled. There is a shipwreck story belonging to every rock of Scilly, and to many there are several shipwrecks. As there are about as many rocks of Scilly as there are days in the year, the stories would take long in the telling.

Fortunately, Peter did not know all. It is natural, however, that a native of Samson, and the descendant of many generations of wreckers, should love to talk about wrecks. Therefore he proceeded to tell of the French frigate which came over to conquer Scilly in 1798, and was very properly driven ashore by the sea which owns allegiance to Britannia, and all hands lost, so that the Frenchmen captured no more than their graves, which now lie in a triumphant row on St. Agnes. On Maiden Bower he placed, I know not with what truth, the wreck of the Spaniard which gave Armorel an ancestor. On Mincarlo he remembered the loss of an orange-ship on her way from the Azores. On Menovaur he had seen a collier driven in broad daylight and broken all to pieces in half a day, and of her crew not a man saved. Other things, similarly cheerful, he narrated slowly while the sunshine made these grey rocks put on a hospitable look and the boat danced over the rippling waves. With his droning voice, his smooth face with the long white hair upon it, like the last scanty leaves upon a tree, he was like the figure of Death at the Feast, while Armorel-young, beautiful, smiling-reminded her guest of Life, and Love, and Hope.

They sailed round so many of these rocks and islets: they landed on so many: they lingered so long among the reefs, loth to leave the wild, strange place, that the sun was fast going down when they hoisted sail and steered for New Grinsey Sound on their homeward way.

You may enter New Grinsey Sound either from the north or from the south. The disadvantage of attempting it from the former on ordinary days is that those who do so are generally capsized and frequently drowned. On such a day as this, however, the northern passage may be attempted. It is the channel, dangerous and beset with rocks and ledges, between the islands of Bryher and Tresco. As the boat sailed slowly in, losing the breeze as it rounded the point, the channel spread itself out broad and clear. On the right hand rose, precipitous, the cliffs and crags of Shipman's Head, which looks like a continuation of Bryher, but is really separated from the island by a narrow passage-you may work through it in calm weather-running from Hell Bay to the Sound. On the left is Tresco, its downs rising steeply from the water, and making a great pretence of being a very lofty ascent indeed. In the middle of the coast juts out a high promontory, surrounded on all sides but one by the water. On this rock stands Cromwell's Castle, a round tower, older than the Martello Towers. It still possesses a roof, but its interior has been long since gutted. In front of it has been built a square stone platform or bastion, where once, no doubt, they mounted guns for the purpose of defending this channel against an invader, as if Nature had not already defended it by her ledges and shallows and hardly concealed teeth of granite. To protect by a fort a channel when the way is so tortuous and difficult, and where there are so many other ways, is almost as if Warkworth Castle, five miles inland, on the winding Coquet, had been built to protect the shores of Northumberland from the invading Dane: or as if Chepstow above the muddy Wye had been built for the defence of Bristol. There, however, the castle is, and a very noble picture it made as the boat slowly voyaged through the Sound. The declining sun, not yet sunk too low behind Bryher, clothed it with light and splendour, and brought out the rich colour of grey rock and yellow fern upon the steep hillside behind. Beyond the castle, in the midst of the Sound, rose a pyramidal island, a pile of rocks, seventy or eighty feet high, on whose highest carn some of Oliver Cromwell's prisoners were hanged, according to the voice of tradition, which, somehow, always goes dead against that strong person.

Roland, who had exhausted the language of delight among the Outer Islands, contemplated this picture in silence.

'Do you not like it?' asked the girl.

'Like it?' he repeated. 'Armorel! It is splendid.'

'Will you make a sketch of it?'

'I cannot. I must make a picture. I ought to come here day after day. There must be a good place to take it from-over there, I think, on that beach. Armorel! It is splendid. To think that the picture is to be seen so near to London, and that no one comes to see it!'

'If you want to come day after day, Roland,' she said, softly, 'you will not be able to go away to-morrow. You must stay longer with us on Samson.'

'I ought not, child. You should not ask me.'

'Why should you not stay if you are happy with us? We will make you as comfortable as ever we can. You have only to tell us what you want.'

She looked so eagerly and sincerely anxious that he yielded.

'If you are really and truly sure,' he said.

'Of course I am really and truly sure. The weather will be fine, I think, and we will go sailing every day.'

'Then I will stay a day or two longer. I will make a picture of Cromwell's Castle-and the hill at the back of it and the water below it. I will make it for you, Armorel; but I will keep a copy of it for myself. Then we shall each have a memento of this day-something to remember it by.'

'I should like to have the picture. But, oh! Roland!-as if I could ever forget this day!'

She spoke with perfect simplicity, this child of Nature, without the least touch of coquetry. Why should she not speak what was in her heart? Never before had she seen a young man so brave, so gallant, so comely: nor one who spoke so gently: nor one who treated her with so much consideration.

He turned his face: he could not meet those trustful eyes, with the innocence that lay there: he was abashed by reason of this innocence. A child-only a child. Armorel would change. In a year or two this trustfulness would vanish. She would become like all other girls-shy and reserved, self-conscious in intuitive self-defence. But there was no harm as yet. She was a child-only a child.

As the sun went down the bows ran into the fine white sand of the landing-place, and their voyage was ended.

'A perfect day,' he murmured. 'A day to dream of. How shall I thank you enough, Armorel?'

'You can stay and have some more days like it.'

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