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   Chapter 20 ALL ABOUT MYSELF

Armorel of Lyonesse By Walter Besant Characters: 15847

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


'You have kept this promise, then.' Armorel welcomed her old friend with eyes of kindness and lips of smiles. 'Do you ever think of the promise that you broke? Effie, dear'-this young lady was the only other occupant of the room-'this is Mr. Roland Lee-my first friend and my first master. He knew me long ago, in Samson, in the days of which I have told you. We have memories of our own-memories such as make the old friendships impossible to be dissolved-whatever happens. Roland, you first put a pencil into my hand and taught me how to use it. In return, I used to play old-fashioned tunes in the evening. And you first put thoughts into my head. Before you came my head was filled with phantoms, which had neither voice nor shape. What am I to do now in return for such a gift?' She gave him both her hands, and her face was so glowing, her eyes so soft yet serious withal, her voice so full of tenderness-that the luckless painter stood confused and overwhelmed. How had he deserved such a reception?

'This evening,' she went on, 'we are going to talk about nobody but myself, and about nothing but my own affairs. Effie, you will be horribly bored. It is five years since I had such a chance. Because, my dear, though you have the best will in the world, and would talk to me about old times if you could, you did not know me when I lived on Samson in the Scilly Islands-and Roland did. That is, if he still remembers Samson.'

'I remember every day on Samson: every blade of grass on the island: every boulder and every crag.'

'And every talk we had in those days?-all the things you told me?'

'I remember, as well, a girl who has so changed, so grown--'

'So much the better. Then we can talk just as we used to do. I thought you would somehow remember the girl, Roland.' She looked up again, smiling. Then she hesitated, and went on slowly: 'Yet I was afraid, this morning, that you might have forgotten one of the two who wandered about the island together.'

'I could never forget you, Armorel.'

'I meant-the other-Roland.'

He made no reply. In his evening dress-which was full of creases, as if it had not been put on for a very long time-he looked a little less forlorn than in the shabby old brown-velvet jacket; he had brushed his hair-nay, he had even had it cut and trimmed: but there still hung about him the look of waste: his eyes were melancholy: his bearing was dejected: he spoke with hesitation: he was even shy, like a schoolboy. Effie noted these things, and wondered. And she observed, besides, not only that his coat was creased, but that his shirt was frayed at the cuffs, and torn in the front. In fact, the young man, in dropping out of society, had, as a natural consequence, neglected his wardrobe and allowed his linen to run to seed unrebuked. Every man who has been a bachelor-most of us have-remembers how shirts behave when the eye of the master is once taken off them.

He was shy because the atmosphere of the drawing-room, so dainty, so luxurious, so womanly, was strange to him. Three years and more had passed since he had been in such a room. He was also shy because this splendid creature, this girl dressed in silk and lovely lace, this miracle of girls, called herself Armorel, his once simple rustic maid of Samson Isle. Further, he was ashamed because this girl remembered him as he was in the good old days, when his face was turned to the summit of the mountain and his feet were on the upward slope.

Armorel had placed on the table a portfolio full of drawings.

'Now for myself,' she said, gaily. 'Roland, you are an artist. You must look at my drawings. Here are the best I have done. I have had many masters since you, but none that taught me so much in so short a time. Do you remember when you first found out that I could hold a pencil? You were very patient then, Master. Be lenient now.'

'I had a very apt pupil,' he began, turning over the drawings. 'These need no leniency. These are very good indeed. You have had other and better masters.'

'I have had other masters, it is true. I have done my best, Roland-to grow.'

He dropped his eyes. But he continued to turn over the sketches. The drawings showed, at least, that natural aptitude which may be genius and may be that imitation of genius which is difficult to distinguish from the real gift. Many painters with no more natural aptitude than Armorel have risen to be Royal Academicians.

'But these are very good indeed,' Roland repeated, with emphasis. 'You have, indeed, worked well, and you have the true feeling.'

'Do you remember, Roland, that day when we talked about the Perfect Woman? No, I see by your eyes that you have forgotten. But I remember. I will not tell you all. One thing she had done: she had trained her eye and her hand. She knew what was good in Art, and was not carried away by any follies or fashions. I did not understand then what you meant by follies and fashions. But I am wiser now. I have been training eye and hand. I think I know a good picture, or a good statue, or a good work in any Art. Do not think me conceited, Master. I have been obedient to your instructions-that is all.'

'You have the soul of an artist, Armorel,' said her Master. 'But yet-I fear-I think-you have missed the supreme gift. You are not a great artist.'

'No, I can grow no higher in painting. I have learned my own limitations. If it is only to understand and to worship the Great Masters it is worth while to get so far. Are you satisfied with your pupil?'

For a moment the old look came back to Roland's eyes. 'You are the best of pupils,' he said. 'But I might have expected so much. Tell me how you succeeded in getting away from Samson?'

She told him, briefly, how the Ancient Lady died, how she found the family treasure, and how she had resolved to go away and learn: how she found masters and guardians: how she lived in Florence, Dresden, Paris: how she worked unceasingly. 'I remembered, always, Roland, your picture of the Perfect Woman.'

'Could I-I-have told you things that have made you-what you are?' It seemed as if another man had given the girl this excellent advice. Not himself-quite another man.

'Effie, dear,' Armorel turned to her, 'you do not understand. I must tell you. Five years ago, when I lived on Samson, a girl so ignorant that it makes me tremble to think what might have happened-there came to the island a young gentleman who was so kind as to take this ignorant girl-me-in hand, and to fill her empty head with all kinds of great and noble thoughts. He was an artist by profession. Oh! an artist filled with ardour and with ambition. He would be satisfied with nothing short of the best: he taught me that none of us ought to be satisfied till we have attained our full stature, and grown as tall as we possibly can. It made that ignorant girl's heart glow only to hear him talk, because she had never heard such talk before. Then he left her, and came back no more. But presently the chance came to this girl, as you have heard, and she was able to leave the island and go where she could find masters and teachers. It is five years ago. And always, every day, Roland'-her lip quivered-'I have said to myself, "My first master is growing taller-taller-taller-every day-I must grow as tall as I can, or else when I meet him again I shall be too insignificant for him to notice." Always I have thought how I should meet him again. So tall, so great, so wonderful!'

Effie remarked that while Armorel addressed Roland she did not look at him until the last words, when she turned and faced him with eyes running over. The man's head dropped: his fingers played with the drawings: he made no reply.

'In the evening,' Armorel went on, 'we used to have music. I played only the old-fashioned tunes then that Justinian Tryeth taught me-do you remember the tunes, Roland? I will play one for you again.'

She took a violin out of the case and began to tune the strings. 'This is my old fiddle. It has been Justinian's-and his father's before him. I have had other instruments since then, but I love the old fiddle best.' She drew her bow across the strings. 'I can play much better now, Roland. And I have much better music; but I will play only the old tunes, because I want you to remember quite clearly those two who walked and talked and sailed together. It is so easy for you to forget that young man. But I remember him very well indeed.' She drew the bow across the strings again. 'Now we are in the old room, while the old people are sitting round the fire. Effie, dear, put the shade over the lamp and turn it low-so-now we are all sitting in the firelight, just as it used to be on Samson-see the red light dancing about the walls. It fills your eyes and makes them glow, Roland. Oh! we are back again. What are you thinking of, artist, while the music falls upon your ears?-while I play-what shall I play? "Dissembling Love," which others call "The Lost Heart"?' She played it with the old spirit, but far more than the old delicacy and feeling. 'You remember that, Roland? Do you hear the lapping of the waves in Porth Bay and the breakers over Shark Point? Or is it too rustic a ditty? I will play you something better, but still the old tunes.' She played first 'Prince Rupert's March,' and then 'The Saraband'-great and lofty airs to one who can play them greatly. While she played Effie watched. In Armorel's eyes she read a purpose. This was no mere play. The man she called her master listened, sitting at the table, the sketches spread out before him, ill at ease, and as one in a troubled dream.

'Do you see him again, that young man?' Armorel asked. 'It makes one happy only to think of such a young man. He knew the dangers before him. "The Way of Wealth," he said once, "and the Way of Pleasure draw men as if with ropes." But he was so strong and steadfast. Nothing would turn him from his way. Not Pleasure, not Wealth, not anything mean or low. There was never any young man so noble. Oh! Do you remember him, Roland? Tell me-tell me-do you remember him?'

Over the pictures on the table he bowed his head. But he made no reply. Then Effie, watching the glittering tears in Armorel's eyes and the bowed head of the man, stole softly out of the room and closed the door.

Armorel put down her fiddle. She drew nearer to the man. His head sank lower. She stood over him, tall and queenly, as the Muse stood over Alfred de Musset. She laid her hand upon his shoulder.

'That old spirit is not dead, but sleeping, Roland. You have not driven it forth. It is your own still. You have only silenced its voice for a while. You think that you have killed it; but you remember it still. Thank God! it has been only sleeping. If it were dead you would not remember. Let it wake again. Oh! Roland-let it wake again-again. Oh! Roland-Roland-my friend and Master--' She could say no more.

The man raised his head. It is a shameful and a terrible thing to see the face of a man who is disgraced and conscious of his shame. Perhaps it is worse to see the face of a man who is disgraced and is unconscious of his shame. He looked round, and saw the tears in the girl's eyes and the quivering of her lips.

'The man you remember,' he said hoarsely, 'is dead and buried. He died three years ago and more. Another man-a poor and mean creature-walks about in his shape. He is unworthy to be in your presence. Suffer him to go, and think of him no longer.'

'Not another man, because you remember the former. Roland, come back, my old friend; come back!'

'It is too late.' But he wavered.

'It is never too late. Oh! I wonder-was it the Way of Pleasure or was it the Way of Wealth?'

'Do I look,' he asked bitterly, 'as if it was the Way of Pleasure?'

'It is not too late, Roland. You have sinned against yourself. If it were too late you would be happy after the kind of those who can live in sin and be happy. Since you are not happy, it is not too late. The doors of heaven stand open night and day for all.'

'You talk the old language, Armorel.'

'It is the language of my soul. I will say the same thing in any tongue you please, so that you understand me.'

'To go back-to begin all over again-to go on as if the last three years had never been--'

'Yes-yes-as if they had never been! That is best. As if they had never been.'

'Armorel, do you know,' he asked her quickly-'do you know the thing-the Awful Thing-that I have done?'

'Do not tell me. Never tell me.'

'Some day, I think I must. What shall I say, now?'

'Say that your footsteps are turned in the old way, Roland.'

He pushed back the chair and stood up. Now, if they had been measured, he would have proved four inches and a half taller than the girl, for he was half an inch short of six feet, and she was exactly five feet seven. Yet as they stood face to face, it seemed to him-and to her as well-as if she towered over him by as many inches as separate the tallest woman from the smallest man. Nature thus accommodates herself to the mental condition of the moment.

The small man, however, did a very strange thing. He drew forth a pocket-book and took from it what Armorel perceived to be a cheque. This he deliberately tore across twice, and threw the fragments into the fire.

'You do not understand this act, Armorel. It is the turning of the footstep.'

She took his hand and pressed it. 'I pray,' she said, 'that the way may prove less thorny than you think!'

Nature, again accommodating herself, caused the small, mean man to grow suddenly several inches. There was still a goodly difference between the two, but it was lessened. More than that, the man continued to grow; and his face was brighter, and his eyes less haggard.

'I will go now, Armorel,' he said.

'You will come again-soon?'

'Not yet. I will come again, when the shame of the present belongs to the past.'

'No. You shall come often. But of past or present we will speak no more. Tell me, in your own good time, Roland, how you fare. But do not desert your old pupil. Come to see me often.'

He bowed his head and went away.

* * *

'Effie,' said Armorel, presently, 'I cannot tell you what all this means.'

'It means a man who has fallen,' said the girl, wise with poetic instinct. 'Anyone could see failure and shame written on his face. It ought to be a noble face, but something has gone out of it. You knew him long ago-when he was different-and you tried to bring him to his old self. Oh! Armorel-you are wonderful-you were his better spirit-you were his muse-calling him back.'

She laid her hand in Armorel's. They stood together in silence. Then Armorel spoke.

'I feared it was quite another man-a new man-a stranger that I had found. But it was not. It was the same man after all.'

Effie stooped and picked up a fragment of paper lying on the hearth. 'Mr. Feilding's signature,' she said, unthinking. At times, when one is moved, trifles sometimes seem to acquire importance.

'That? It is a part of a cheque which he tore up. Effie, dear-it was good of you to go away and leave us when you did. Perhaps he would not have spoken so freely if you had been here. Oh! he is the same man, after all. He has come back to me. Effie, tell me; but you know no more than I. If you once loved a man, and if you suffered the thought of him to lie in your heart for years, and if you filled him with all the virtues that there are, and if he grew in your heart to be a knight perfect at all points--'

'Well, Armorel?' For she stopped, and Effie took her hand.

'Oh! Effie,' she replied, with glowing cheeks; 'could you ever afterwards love another man? Could you ever cease to love that man of your imagination? Could any meaner man content you? For my part-never!-never!-never!'

* * *

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