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   Chapter 11 ROLAND'S LETTER

Armorel of Lyonesse By Walter Besant Characters: 15467

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


Roland went away. Like Mr. Robert Fletcher, he promised to return, and, like her great-great-grandmother, but for other reasons, Armorel treasured this promise. Also like Mr. Robert Fletcher, now presumably deceased, Roland went away with the sense of having left something behind him. Not his heart, dear reader. A young man of twenty-one does not give away his heart in the old-fashioned way any longer: he carries it about with him, carefully kept in its proper place: what Roland had left behind him, for awhile, was a part of himself. It would perhaps come back to him in good time, but for the present it remained on Samson, and discoursed to the rest of him in London whenever he would listen, on the beauties of that archipelago and the graces of the child Armorel. And this part of himself, which haunted Samson, made him sit down and write a letter. It would have been a tender, a sorrowful, an affectionate letter had it not been for that other part of him-the greater part-which went to London. That other part of him remonstrated. 'She is but a simple country girl,' it said. 'Her future will be to marry a simple Scillonian. Why disturb her mind? Why seek to plant the seeds of discontent under the guise of culture? Leave her-leave her to herself. Forget those dark eyes, in whose depths there seemed to lie so sweet, so great a soul. Believe me, there was nothing at all behind those eyes but ignorance and curiosity. How could there be anything? Leave her in peace. Or, since you must write, let it be a cold letter-friendly, but fatherly-and let her understand clearly that the visit can produce no further consequences whatever.' Thus the London half of him-the bigger half. Perhaps his friend Dick Stephenson remonstrated in the same strain. But the lesser half insisted on writing a letter of some kind-and had his way.

He wrote a letter, and sent it off.

It was the very first letter that had ever been sent to Samson. Of that I am quite sure. No letters ever reached that island. If people had business with Samson, they transacted it at the Port with Justinian or Peter. Of course it was the first letter that had ever been received by Armorel. Peter brought it across for her. He had wrapped the unaccustomed thing in brown paper for fear the spray should fall upon it. Armorel drew it forth from its covering and gazed upon it with the wonder of a child who gets an unexpected toy. She read over the address a dozen times: '"Miss Rosevean"-look at it, Dorcas. What a pity you cannot read! "Miss Rosevean"-he might have written "Armorel"-"Island of Samson, Scilly." Of course, it is from Roland. No one else would write to me.' Then she opened it carefully, so as not to injure any part of the writing-indeed, Roland possessed that desirable, but very rare, gift of a very beautiful hand. No Penman of the monastery: no scrivener of a later age: no Arab or Persian scribe, could write a more beautiful hand. It was a hand in which every letter was clearly formed, as if it made a picture of itself, and every word was a Group, like the Eastern Isles of Scilly, to be admired by the whole world.

The letter began-the London portion conceding so much-with a pen-and-ink sketch of the writer's head: if it was just a little idealised, who shall blame the limner? This was delightful. Armorel had no portrait of her friend. What would follow after such a beautiful beginning? Then the writing began, and Armorel addressed herself seriously to the mastering of and the meaning of the letter. I blush to record the fact, but Armorel read handwriting slowly. Consider. Since she left school she had seen none: while at school she had seen little. People easily forget such a simple thing, though we who write all day long cannot understand how a man can forget how to write. Yet there are many working-men who cannot read handwriting, nor can they themselves write. They have had no occasion, all their lives, to use either accomplishment, and so have readily forgotten it-a fact which shows the profound wisdom of the School Boards in teaching spelling. Armorel could read the letter, but she read it slowly.

It seemed, when she read it first, sentence by sentence, a really beautiful letter-regarded as a letter in the abstract. After she had read it two or three times over, and had mastered the whole document, she began to understand that the writer of it was not the man she remembered, not the man whose memory she loved and cherished, not at all her friend Roland Lee. All the old camaraderie was gone. It was the letter of another man altogether. It was cold and stiff. The coldness went to the girl's heart. She had never known Roland to be cold. Where was the sympathy which formerly flowed in magnetic currents from one to the other? Where was the brotherly interest?-she called it brotherly. The writer spoke, it is true, with gratitude overwhelming, of his stay on the island, and her hospitality. But, good gracious! Armorel wanted no thanks. His visit had made her happy: he knew that. Why should he take up a page and a half in returning thanks to her, when her own heart was full of gratitude to him? He said that the three weeks he had spent among the islands had been a holiday which he could never forget-this was very good, so far; but then he spoiled all by adding that he should not readily forget-'readily forget' he wrote-his fair companion and guide among those labyrinthine waters. 'Fair companion!' What had fairness to do with it? Armorel had been his pupil: he taught her all day long. She did not want to be called his 'fair companion': that was mockery. She wanted to be called 'his dear friend' or 'his dear sister': that would have gone straight to her heart. She expected at least so much when she opened the letter. But worse-far worse-was to follow. He actually spoke of the possibilities of their never meeting again, the world (outside Scilly) being so very wide. Never to meet again! And he had promised to return: he had faithfully promised. Why, he had only to take the steamer from Penzance: Samson Island would not sail away. Why did he not rather say when he was to be expected? Worst of all, he spoke of her forgetting him. Oh! how could she forget him? As for the rest of the letter, the paternal advice to continue in the path of industry, and so forth, no clergyman in the pulpit could speak more wisely: but these things touched not the girl. Woman wants affection rather than wisdom, even though she understands, or has, at least, been told, that Wisdom delivereth from the way of the Evil Man.

Armorel at length laid the letter down with a sigh and a tear. She kept it in her pocket for some days, and read it every day: but with increasing sadness. Finally, she laid it in a drawer where were all the sketches, fragments of illustration, and outline drawings which Roland had given her. She would read it no longer. She would wait till Roland came back, and she would ask him what it meant. Perhaps it was the way of the world to be so cold and so constrained in letter-writing.

There came a box with the letter. It contained books-quite a large number of books-selected by Roland with the view of suiting the case of one who dwells upon a desert island. It was just as if Captain Woodes Rogers had left Alexander alone upon Juan Fernandez, and gone home to make up for him a parcel of books intended to show him what went on in the wider world. There were also drawing materials, colours, brushes, pencils, books of instruction, and books of music. Roland the fatherly-the London part of Roland-neglected nothing that might be solidly serviceable to the young Person. Observe, here, one of those black gaps of ignorance already spoken of in th

is girl of the Lonely Isles. She did not know that an answer to the letter was absolutely necessary. In the London studio the writer sat wondering why no answer came. He had been so careful, too: not a word which could be misunderstood: he had been so truly fatherly. And yet no reply.

Nobody was at hand to tell Armorel that she must sit down and write some kind of an answer. She tried, in fact: she made several attempts. But she could not write anything that satisfied her. The coldness of the letter chilled her. She wanted to write as she had talked with him-all out of the fulness of her heart. How could she write to this frigid creature? The writer of such a letter could not be her dear companion who laughed and made her laugh, sang and made her sing, made pictures for her, told her all about his own private ambitions, and had no secrets from her: it was a strange man who wrote to her and signed the name of Roland Lee. The real Roland would never have hinted at the possibility of her forgetting him, or at the chance of their never meeting again. The real Roland would have written to say when he was coming again. She could not reply to this impostor.

Therefore, she never answered that letter at all; and so she got no more letters. It was a pity, because, had she written what was in her mind, for very pity the real Roland would have returned to her. Once, and once only, the voice of Roland came to her across the sea-and then it was a changed voice. He spoke no more. But he would come again: he said he would come again. Every day she sat on the hill beside the barrow, and gazed across the Road. She could see the pier of Hugh Town and the vessels in the port: perhaps Roland had come over from Penzance by the morning steamer, and would shortly sail across the Road, and leap out upon the beach, and run to meet and greet her, with both hands outstretched, the light of affection in his eyes, and the laugh of welcome in his voice. She was graver and more silent than before: she did not sing so often as she walked among the ferns: she did not prattle to Chessun and Dorcas while she made her cakes and puddings. But nobody noticed any change in her: the serving-women, if they observed any, would have said only that Armorel was growing into a woman already.

The autumn changed to winter. Roland would not come in winter, when the sea is stormy and there is little sunshine. She must wait now until spring. Meantime, on Samson, where are no trees except those wizened and crooked little trees of the orchard, there is not much to mark the winter except the cold wind and the short days. Here there is never frost or snow, hail or ice. The brown turf is much the same in December as in August; the dead fern is not so yellow; the dead and dying leaves of the bramble are not so splendid. The wind is colder, the sky is more grey; otherwise winter makes little difference in the external aspect of this archipelago. When the short days begin, the brown fields of the flower-farms clothe themselves with the verdure of spring: before the New Year has fairly set in, some of the fresh delicate flowers have been already cut and laid in the hothouse to be sent across to Covent Garden. The harvest of the year begins with its first day, and they reap it from January to May.

There are plenty of things on such a farm for a girl to do. Armorel did not, if you please, sit down to weep. But she daily recalled with tender regret every one of the pleasant days of that companionship. She kept her promise, too: she read something every morning in the books which Roland had sent her: every afternoon she attempted to carry on the drawing lesson by herself: she practised her violin diligently: and every evening she played the old tunes to the old lady, and awakened her once more to life and memory. There was no change, except that everything now was coloured by what he had said. She was to grow to her full height-he had told her how-but at present she hardly saw her way to carrying out those instructions. Her full height! Ignorant of the truth-since such a girl grown to her full height would be so tall as to be out of all proportion, not only to Samson, but even to St. Mary's itself.

Sometimes one falls into the habit of associating a single person with an idea, a thought, an anticipation, a place. Whenever the mind turns to this thought, the person is present. For example, there is a street in London which I have learned, from long habit, to associate with a second-hand bookseller. He was a gentle creature, full of reading, who had known many men. I sometimes sat at the back of his shop conversing with him. Sometimes a twelve-month would pass without my seeing him at all. But always when I think of this street I think of this old gentleman. The other day I passed through it. Alas! the shutters were up: the house was to let: my gentle friend was gone. Armorel associated her future-the unknown future-with Roland. Suppose that when that future should be the present she should find the shutters up, the house deserted, the tenant dead!

The harvest of flowers was well begun: the boxes piled in the hold of the steamer merrily danced in the roll of the Atlantic waves as the Lady of the Isles made her way to Penzance: in London the delicate narcissus and the jonquil returned to the dinner-tables, and stood about in glasses. Roland Lee bought them and took them home to his studio, where he sat looking at them, reminded of Armorel-who had never even answered his letter. Perhaps the flowers came from Samson. Why did the girl send him no answer to his letter? Then his memory went back to that little island with its two hills, and its barrows, and the quiet house-and to the girl who lived there. On what rock of Samson was she sitting? Where was she at that moment? Gazing somewhere over the wild waste of waters, the wind blowing about her curls, and the beating of the waves in her ears. She had forgotten him. Why not? He was only a visitor of a week or two. She was nothing but a child-and an ignorant farmer-girl living in a desert island. Ignorant? No; that was not the word. He saw her once more standing in the middle of the room, the ruddy firelight in her eyes and on her cheeks, playing 'Singleton's Slip' and 'Prince Rupert's March,' while the Ancient Lady mopped and mowed and discoursed of other days. And again: he saw her standing on the beach when he said farewell, the tears in her eyes, her voice choked. Then he longed again, as he had longed then, to take her in his arms, even in the presence of Peter the boy, to soothe and kiss her and bid her weep no more, because he would never, never leave her.

So strong was the impression made upon this young man by this child of fifteen, that after six months spent in the society of many other girls, of charms more matured, he still remembered her, and thought of her with that kind of yearning regret which is perilously akin to love. An untaught, ignorant girl-whose charm lay in her innocent confidence, her soft black eyes, and the beauty of the maiden emerging from the child-could hardly make a permanent impression on a man of the world, even a young man of only twenty-one. The time would go on, and the girl would be forgotten, except as a pleasant memory associated with a delightful holiday. An artist is, perhaps, above his fellows, liable to swift and sudden changes; his mind dwells continually on beauty. All lovely girls have not black hair and black eyes. Apollo, himself, the god of artists, loved not only all the nine Muses and all the three Graces, but a good many nymphs and princesses as well-such is the artistic temperament, so catholic is its admiration of beauty.

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