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   Chapter 12 THE CHANGE

Armorel of Lyonesse By Walter Besant Characters: 11903

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


'A change,' said Roland, 'will surely come, and that before long. I cannot believe'-Armorel remembered the words afterwards-'that you will stay on this island for ever.' It needed no unusual gift of prophecy to foretell impending change when the most important member of the household was nearing her hundredth year.

The change foretold actually came in April, when the flower-fields had lost their beauty and the harvest of Scilly was nearly over. Late blossoms of daffodil still reared their heads among the thick leaves, though their blooming companions had all been cut off to grace London tables; there were broad patches of wallflower little regarded; the leaves of the bulbs were drooping and already turning brown: these were the signs of approaching summer to the Scillonian, who has already had his spring. On the adjacent island of Great Britain the primrose clustered on the banks; the hedges of the West Country were splendid, putting forth tender leaves over a wealth of wild flowers; the chestnut-buds were swollen and sticky, ready to burst. Do we not know the signs and tokens of coming spring? On Scilly, the lengthening day-there are no hedges and no trees to speak of-the completion of the flower harvest, and the drooping of the daffodil-leaves in the fields are the chief signs of spring. Yet there are other signs: if there are no woods to show the tender leaf of spring, there are the green shoots of the fern on the down: and there are the birds. The puffin has already come back; he comes in his thousands: he arrives in April, and he departs in September: whence he cometh and whither he goeth no man hath ever learned nor can naturalist discover. At the same time comes the guillemot, and sometimes the solan-goose: the tern and the sheerwater come too, if they come at all, in spring: but the wild ducks and the wild geese depart before the flower-harvest is finished.

Armorel got up one morning in April a little earlier than usual. It was five o'clock: the sun was rising over Telegraph Hill on St. Mary's. She ran down the stairs, opened the door, and stood on the porch drawing a deep breath. No one was as yet stirring on Samson, though I think Peter was beginning to turn in his bed. Out at sea Armorel saw a great steamer, homeward bound, perhaps an Australian liner: the level rays of the early sun shone on her spars and made them stand out clear and fine against the sky: behind her streamed her long white cloud of smoke and steam, hanging over the water, light and feathery. There were no other ships visible. The air was cold, but the sun of April was already strong. Armorel shivered, caught her hat, and ran over the hill, singing as she went, not knowing that in the night, while she slept, the Angel of Death had visited the house.

About seven o'clock she came back, having completely circumnavigated the island of Samson, and made, as usual, many curious observations and discoveries in the manners and customs of puffins, terns, and shags. She returned in the cheerful mood which belongs to youth, health, and readiness for breakfast. She instantly perceived, however, on arriving, that something had happened-something unusual. For Peter stood in the porch: what was Peter doing in the porch at seven o'clock in the morning, when he ought to have been ministering to the pigs? Further, Peter was standing in the attitude of a boy who waits to be sent on an errand. It is an attitude of expectant readiness-of zeal according to duty-of activity bought and freely rendered. You will observe this attitude in all office boys-except telegraph-boys: they never assume it: they affect no zeal: they betray no eagerness to put in a fair day's work. Such an attitude would lack the dignity due to a Government officer. And at sight of Armorel Peter hung his head as one who sorrows, or is ashamed or repentant. What did he do that for? What had happened? Why should he hang his head?

She asked these questions of Peter, who only shook his head and pointed within. She heard Justinian's voice giving some directions. She also heard Dorcas and Chessun. They were all three speaking in low voices. She hurried in. The door of the old lady's bedroom-that sacred apartment into which no one, except the two handmaidens, had ever ventured-stood wide open; not only that, but Justinian himself was in the room-actually in the room-and beside the bed. Then Armorel understood what had happened. On no other condition would Justinian be admitted to his old mistress's room. On the other side of the bed stood Dorcas and Chessun. Seeing Armorel at the door, these two ladies instantly lifted up their voices and wailed aloud-nay, they shrieked and screamed their lamentations, as if it was the first time in the world's history that death had carried off an aged woman. This they did by a kind of instinct: the thing, though they knew it not, was a survival. In ancient times it was the custom in Lyonesse that the women should all wail and weep and shriek, and beat their breasts and tear their hair, and cut their cheeks with their nails, while the body of the dead king or warrior was carried up the slope of the hill to be laid in its kistvaen and covered with its barrow on Samson island.

They wailed aloud, then, because it had always been the right thing for the women of Samson to do. Otherwise, when one so ancient dies at last, mind and memory gone before, what place is there for wailing and weeping? One natural tear we drop, for all must die; but grief belongs to the death-bed of the young. There needed no shriek of the women nor anyone's speech to tell Armorel that the white face upturned on the bed was not the face of a living woman. They had folded the dead hands across her breast: the eyes were closed: the countless wrinkles of the aged face were smoothed out: the lips were parted with a wan smile. After many, many years, Ursula, the widow, was gone to rejoin her husband. Pray Hea

ven her desire be granted, and that she rise again young and beautiful-such a woman as that ill-starred sailor, dragged to the bottom of the sea by the weight of Robert Fletcher's bag, had loved in life!

Peter presently sailed across the Road, and returned with the doctor. It is the part of the doctor not only to usher the new-born into life, but to bar or open the gates of the tomb: without him very few of us die, and without him no one can be buried. This man of science graciously expressed his willingness to acknowledge, though he had not been called in, that the deceased died of old age. Then he went back.

In the evening there was no music. The violin remained in its place; the great chair was empty; no one brought out the spinning-wheel; the table was not pushed back. How was the long evening to be got through without the violin? How could those ancient tunes be played any more in the presence of that empty chair? When the serving-folk came in as usual and sat round the fire, and the women sighed and moaned, and Justinian stimulated the coals to a flame, and the ruddy light played upon their faces, Armorel began to think that a continuance of these evenings would be tedious. Then they began to talk, the conversation naturally turning on Death and Judgment, and the prospects of Heaven and the departed.

'She was not one of them,' said Dorcas, 'as would never talk of such things. I've often heard her say she wanted to rise again, young and beautiful, same as she was when her husband was took, so that he should love her again.'

'Nay,' said Justinian; 'that's foolish talk. There's neither marrying nor giving in marriage there. You ought to know so much, Dorcas. Husbands and wives will know each other, I doubt not, if it's only for the man's forgiveness after the many crosses and rubs. 'Twould be a pity, wife, if we didn't know each other, golden crown and all. I'd be sorry to think you were not about somewhere.'

Armorel listened without much interest. She wondered vaguely how Dorcas would look in a golden crown, and hoped that she might not laugh when she should be permitted to gaze upon her thus wonderfully adorned. Then she listened in silence while these thinkers followed up their speculations on the next world and the decrees of Heaven, with the freedom of their kind. A strangely brutal freedom! It consigns, without a thought of pity, the majority of mankind to a doom which they are too ignorant to realise and too stupid to understand. The deceased lady, it was agreed, might, perhaps-though this was by no means certain-have fallen under Conviction of Sin at some remote period, before any of them knew her. Not since, that was certain. And as for her husband, he was cut off in his sins-like all the Roseveans, struck down in his sins, without a warning. So that if the old lady expected to meet him, after their separation of nearly eighty years, on the Shores of Everlasting Praise, she would certainly be disappointed, because he was otherwise situated and disposed of. Therefore she might just as well go up old and wrinkled. This kind of talk was quite familiar to Armorel, and generally meant nothing to her. The right of private judgment is claimed and freely exercised in Scilly, where that branch of the Church Catholic called Bryanite greatly flourishes. Formerly, she would have passed over this talk without heeding. Now, she had begun to think of these as well as of many other things. Roland's words on religious things startled her into thinking. She listened, therefore, wondering what view people like Roland Lee would take of her great-grandfather's present condition, and of the poor old lady's prospects of meeting him again. Then her thoughts wandered from these nebulous speculations, and she heard no more, though the conversation became lurid with the flames of Tartarus, and these old religioners gloated over the hopeless sufferings of the condemned. A sweet and holy thing, indeed, has mankind made of the Gospel of Great Joy!

Before they separated, Chessun rose and left the room noiselessly. Armorel had no experience of the situation, but she knew that something was going to be done, something connected with the impending funeral-something solemn.

In fact, Chessun returned after ten minutes or a quarter of an hour, the others making a pretence of expecting nothing. Doctrinal meditation was written on Justinian's brow: resignation on that of Dorcas. Chessun bore in her hands a tray with glasses and a silver tankard filled with something that steamed. It was a posset, made with biscuits, new milk and sherry, nutmeg and sugar-an emotional drink, strong, sweet, comforting, very good for mournful occasions, but, of late years, unfortunately, gone out of fashion.

They all had a glass, the two women moaning over their glasses, and the old man shaking his head. Then they went to bed.

They had a posset every night until the funeral. They buried the ancient dame on Bryher. A boat carried the coffin across the water to the landing-place in New Grinsey Sound, behind which stands the little old church with its churchyard. Armorel and her household followed in one of the family boats, as in a mourning-carriage. All the people of Tresco and Bryher were present at the funeral; and most of them came across to Samson after the ceremony to drink a glass of wine and eat a slice of cake, the women no longer wailing and the men no longer shaking their heads.

All the Roseveans who have escaped the vengeance of Mr. Fletcher's terrible bag lie in Bryher churchyard. They are mostly widows, poor things! They sleep alone, because their husbands' bones lie about among the tall weeds in the tranquil depths of the ocean.

And Armorel, looking forward, thought with terror of the long, silent evenings, while the old serving-folk would sit round in the firelight, silent, or saying things that might as well have been left unsaid.

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