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Armorel of Lyonesse By Walter Besant Characters: 17027

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02

Half an hour later the blinds were down, the fire was brightly burning, the red firelight was merrily dancing about the room, and the table was pushed back. Then Dorcas and Justinian came in-the two old serving-folk, bent with age, grey-headed, toothless-followed by Chessun-thin and tall, silent and subdued. And Armorel, taking her violin, tuned it, and turned to her old master for instructions, just as she had done on the first and every following night of Roland's stay.

'"Barley Break,"' said Justinian.

Armorel struck up that well-known air. Then, as before, the ancient dame started, moved uneasily, sat upright, and opened her eyes and began to talk. But to-night she was not rambling: she did not begin one fragment of reminiscence and break off in the middle. She started with a clear story in her mind, which she began at the beginning and carried on. When Armorel saw her thus disposed, she stopped playing 'Barley Break,' which may amuse the aged mind and recall old merriment, but lacks earnestness.

'"Put on thy smock o' Monday,"' said Justinian.

This ditty lends itself to more sustained thought. Armorel put more seriousness into it than the theme of the music would seem to warrant. The old lady, however, seemed to like it, and continued her narrative without interrupting it at any point. Armorel also observed that, though she addressed the assembled multitude generally, she kept glancing furtively at Roland.

'The night was terrible,' said the ancient dame, speaking distinctly and connectedly; 'never was such a storm known-we could hear the waves beating and dashing about the islands louder than the roaring of the wind, and we heard the minute-gun, so that there was little sleep for anyone. At daybreak we were all on the shore, out on Shark Point. Sure enough, on the Castinicks the ship lay, breaking up fast-a splendid East Indiaman she was. Her masts were gone and her bows were stove in-as soon as the light got strong enough we could see so much-and the shore covered already with wreck. But not a sign of passengers or crew. Then my husband's father, who was always first, saw something, and ran into the water up to his middle and dragged ashore a spar. And, sure enough, a man was lashed to the spar. When father hauled the man up, he was quite senseless, and he seemed dead, so that another quarter of an hour would have finished him, even if his head had not been knocked against a rock, or the spar turned over and drowned him. Just as father was going to call for help to drag him up, he saw a little leather bag hanging from his neck by a leather thong. There were others about, all the people of Samson-fifty of them-men, women, and children-all busy collecting the things that had been washed ashore, and some up to their waists in the water after the things still floating about. But nobody was looking. Therefore, father, thinking it was a dead man, whipped out his knife, cut the leather thong, and slipped the bag into his own pocket, not stopping to look at it. No one saw him, mind-no one-not even your father, Justinian, who was close beside him at the time.'

'Ay, ay,' said Justinian: 'if father had seen it, naturally--' But his voice died away, and Roland was left to wonder what, under such circumstances, a native of Samson would have done.

'No one saw it. Father thought the man was dead. But he wasn't. Presently he moved. Then they carried him up the hill to the farm-this very house-and laid him down before the fire-just at your feet, Armorel-and I was standing by. "Get him a cordial," says father. So we gave him a dram, and he drank it and opened his eyes. He was a gentleman-we could see that-not a common sailor: not a common man.'

Here her head dropped, and she seemed to be losing herself again.

'Try her with a Saraband,' said Justinian, as if a determined effort had to be made. Armorel changed her tune. A Saraband lends itself to a serious and even solemn turn of thought. As a dance it requires the best manners, the bravest dress, and the most dignified air. It will be seen, therefore, that to a mind bent upon a grave narrative of deeds lamentable and fateful, the Saraband, played in a proper frame of mind, may prove sympathetic. The ancient lady lifted her head, strengthened by the opening bars, which, indeed, are very strong, and resumed her story. Armorel, to be sure, and all her hearers, knew the history well, having heard it every night in disjointed bits. The Tale of the Stolen Treasure was familiar to her: it was more than familiar-it was a bore: the Family Doom seemed unjust to her: it disturbed her sense of Providential benevolence: yet she threw all her soul into the Saraband in order to prolong by a few minutes the waking and conscious moments of this remote ancestress. A striking illustration, had the others understood it, of filial piety.

'But I was standing close by father,' she went on-'I was beside him on the beach, and I saw it. I saw him cut the thong and slip the bag into his pocket. When he came to himself, I whispered to father, "There's his bag: you've got his bag in your pocket." "I know," he said, rough. "Hold your tongue, girl." So I said no more, but waited. Then the man opened his eyes and tried to sit up; but he couldn't, being still dizzy with the beating of the waves. But he looked at us, wondering where he was. "You are ashore, Master," said father. "The only one of all the ship's company that is, so far." "Ashore?" he asked. "Ay, ashore: where else would you be? Your ship's in splinters: your captain and your crew are dead men all. But you're ashore." With that the man shut his eyes and lay quiet for a time. Then he opened them again. "Where am I?" he asked. "You are on Samson, in Scilly," I told him. Then he tried to get up again, but he couldn't. And so we carried him upstairs and laid him on the bed.

'He was in bed for nigh upon six weeks. Never was any man so near his latter end. I nursed him all the time. He had a fever, and his head wandered. In his rambling he told me who he was. His name was Robert Fletcher-Robert Fletcher,' she repeated, nodding to Roland with strange significance. 'A brave gentleman, and handsome and well-mannered. He had been in the service of an Indian King; and, though he was only thirty, he had made his fortune and was bringing it home, thinking that he would do nothing more all his life but just sit down and enjoy himself. All his fortune was in the bag. When he recovered he told me that the last thing he remembered, before he was washed off the ship, was feeling for the safety of his bag. And it was gone. And he was a beggar. Poor man! And I knew all the time where the bag was and who had it. But I could not tell him. If father sinned when he kept the bag, I sinned as well, because I knew he kept it. If father was punished when his son was drowned, that son was my husband, and I was punished too.'

She stopped, and it seemed as if for the evening she had run down; but Armorel stimulated her again, and she went on, looking more and more at the face of the stranger that was in their gates.

'While he lay ill and was like to die, father was uneasy-I know why. He wanted him to die, because then he could keep the treasure with a quiet mind. "All's ours that comes ashore," that's what we used to say. He never confessed his thoughts-but I, who knew what was in the bag, guessed them very well.

'The stranger began to recover, and father fell into a gloomy fit, and would go and sit by himself for hours. Nobody dared ask him-for he was a man of short temper and rough in his speech-what was the matter with him, but I knew very well. He was gloomy because he didn't want to lose that bag. But the man got better, and at last quite well, and one morning he came down dressed in clothes that father lent him, because his own were ruined in the washing of him ashore, and he bade us all farewell. "Captain Rosevean," he said, very earnestly, "when I left India I was rich: I was carrying all my fortune home with me in a small compass, for safety, as I thought. I was going to be a rich man, and work no more. Well-I have escaped with my life, and that is all. If I were not a beggar I would offer you half my fortune for saving my life. As it is, I can offer you nothing but my gratitude."

'So he shook hands with father, who stood as white as a sheet, for all he was a ruddy-faced man and inclined to brandy. "And farewell, Mistress Ursula," he said. "Farewell, my kind nurs

e." So he kissed me, being a courteous gentleman. "I shall come back again to see you," he said; "I shall surely come back. Look to see me some day, when you least expect me." So he went away, and they rowed him over to the Port, and he sailed to Penzance. Father went to his own room, where the treasure was. And my heart sank heavy as lead. The more I thought of the wickedness, the heavier fell my heart. There was father and his son, my husband, and myself and my own son not yet born. The Hand of the Lord would be upon us for that wickedness. I ought to have cried out to the stranger before he went away that his treasure was safe and that we were keeping it for him. But I didn't. Then I tried to comfort myself. I said that when he came again I would give him back the bag, even if I had to steal it from father's chest.

'It was a long time ago-they are all gone, swallowed up by the sea-which was right, because we stole the treasure from the sea. He never came back. I looked for him to come after my husband was drowned, and after my son went too, and my grandson-but he never came again as he promised. And at last, at last'-her voice rose almost to a shriek, and everybody jumped in his chair; but Armorel continued to play the Saraband slowly and with much expression-'at last he has come back, and we are saved. All that are left of us are saved. Armorel, my child, you are saved. Your bones shall not lie rotting among the sea-weed: your flesh shall not be devoured by crabs and conger-eels: you may sail without fear among the islands. For he has kept his promise and has come back.

Then she rose-she, who had not stood upon her feet for three years-actually rose and stood up, or seemed to stand: the red light, playing on her face, made her eyes shine like two balls of fire. 'You,' she cried, pointing her long, skinny, finger at Roland. 'You! oh! you have come at last. You have suffered all that innocent blood to be shed: but you have come at last.' She sank back among her pillows, but her finger still pointed at the stranger. 'Sir,' she said now, with tremulous voice, 'you are welcome. Late though it is, Mr. Fletcher, you are welcome. When you came a day or two ago I wondered, being now very old and foolish, if it was really you. Now I know. I remember, though it is nearly eighty years ago. You are welcome again to Samson, Mr. Fletcher. You find me changed, no doubt. I knew you would keep your promise and come again, some time or other. As for you, I see little change. You are dressed differently, and when you were here last your hair was worn in another fashion. But you are no older to look at. You are not changed at all by time. You would not know me again. How should you? I suppose you knew-somebody told you, perhaps-that the bag was safe after all. That knowledge has kept you young. Nothing short of that knowledge could have kept you young. I assure you, Sir, had I known where to find you I would have taken the bag and its contents to you long, long ago. And now you are come back in search of it.'

'It was eighty years ago!' Dorcas whispered to Chessun, shuddering. 'He must be more than a hundred!'

'A hundred years!' returned her daughter, with pallid cheeks. 'It isn't in nature. He looks no more than twenty. Mother, is he a man and alive?'

'Pretend that you are Mr. Fletcher,' whispered Armorel. 'Do not contradict her. Say something.'

'It is a long time ago,' said Roland. 'I should have kept my promise much sooner. And as for that bag-you saved my life, you know. Pray keep the bag. It has long been forgotten.'

'Keep the bag? Do you know what is in it? Do you know what it is worth? That, Mr. Fletcher, is your politeness. We, who have suffered so much from the possession of the bag, cannot believe that you have forgotten it, because if we have suffered for our guilt you must have suffered through that guilt. Else there would be no justice. No justice at all unless you have suffered too. Else all those lives have been wasted and thrown away.'

The old lady spoke with the voice and firmness of a woman of fifty. She looked strong: she sat up erect. Armorel played on, now softly, now loudly. The serving-folk looked on open-mouthed: the women with terror undisguised. Was this gentleman, so young and so pleasant, none other than the man whose injury had brought all these drownings upon the family? Nearly eighty years ago that happened. Then, he must be a ghost! What else could he be? No human creature could come back after eighty years still so young.

'When I said, Madam,' Roland explained, 'that I had forgotten the bag, what I meant was that after losing it so long I had quite abandoned all hope of finding it again. I assure you that I have not come here in search of it. In fact, I thought it was lying at the bottom of the sea, where so many other treasures lie.'

'It is not at the bottom of the sea, Mr. Fletcher. You shall have it again, to-morrow. You are still so young that you can enjoy your fortune. Make good use of it, Sir, and do not forget the poor. I have counted the contents again and again. They are not things that wear out and rust, are they? No, no. You must often have laughed to think that the moth and the worm cannot destroy that treasure. You will be very pleased to have it back.'

'I shall be very pleased indeed,' he echoed, 'to have my treasure again.'

'Face and voice unchanged.' The old lady shook her head. 'And after eighty years. It is a miracle, yet not a greater miracle than the Vengeance which has pursued this house so long. This single crime has been visited upon the third and fourth generation. 'Tis time that punishment should cease at last-cease at last! I must tell you, Mr. Fletcher,' she went on, 'that when my husband was drowned and my father-in-law died, I took possession of the bag and everything else. I said nothing to my son. Why? Because, until the owner of the stolen bag came back, the curse was on him and his children. No-no; I would not let him know. But I knew very well what would happen to all of them. Oh! yes; I knew, and I waited. But he was happy, and his son and his grandson and his great-grandson, until they were drowned, one after the other. And still you stayed away.'

'Madam, had I known, I would have returned fifty years ago and more, in time to have saved them all.'

'You might have come sooner, Sir, permit me to say, and so have saved some.' It was wonderful how erect the old lady held herself, and with what firmness and precision she spoke.

'There is now only one left-the child Armorel. To-morrow, Sir, you shall have your bag again. Once more you are our guest: this time, I hope you will leave a blessing instead of a curse upon the house.'

At this moment Armorel ceased playing. Then this ancient lady stopped talking. She looked round: her eyes lost their fire: her face its expression: her mouth its firmness: she fell back in her pillows, and her head dropped.

Dorcas and Chessun rose and carried her to her own room. The old man got up, too, and shambled out. Armorel pushed the table into its place, and lit the candles. The incident was closed. In the morning the old lady had forgotten everything.

'Almost,' said Roland, 'she has made me believe that my name is Fletcher. Shall I to-morrow morning ask her for the bag? Where is that bag? Armorel, it is a true story. I am quite certain of it.'

'Oh, yes, it is true. Justinian knows about the wreck, though it happened before he was born. Mr. Fletcher was the only man saved of all the ship and company-captain, officers, crew, and passengers-the only one. He was rescued by Captain Rosevean himself and brought here. He had the bedroom where you sleep-the bedroom which was my brother Emanuel's room. Here he lay ill a long time, but recovered and went away.'

'And the bag?'

'I know nothing about the bag. That has gone long ago, I suppose, with all the money that my people made by smuggling and by piloting. I have seen her watching you for some days past: I thought she would speak to you last night. To-morrow she will have forgotten everything.'

'I suppose I have some kind of resemblance to Mr. Robert Fletcher, presumably deceased. Well-but, Armorel, this is a fortunate evening. The family luck has come back-I have brought it back. The Ancient one said so, and you are saved. She may call me Fletcher-call me Tryeth-call me any name that flyeth-if she only calls me him who arrived in time to save you, Armorel.'

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