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Armorel of Lyonesse By Walter Besant Characters: 15663

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02

There are few instincts and impulses of imperfect human nature more deeply rooted or more certain to act upon us than the desire to 'have it out' with some other human creature. Women are especially led or driven by this impulse, even among the less highly civilised to the tearing out of nose- and ear-rings. You may hear every day at all hours in every back street of every city the ladies having it out with each other. In fact there is a perpetual court of Common Pleas being held in these streets, without respite of holiday or truce, in which the folk have it out with each other, while friends-sympathetic friends-stand by and act as judges, jury, arbitrators, lawyers, and all. Things are reported, things are said, things are done, a personal explanation is absolutely necessary, before peace of mind can be restored, or the way to future action become clearly visible. The two parties must have it out.

In Armorel's case she found that before doing anything she must see that member of the conspiracy-if, indeed, there was a conspiracy-who was her own friend: she must see Roland. She must know exactly what it meant, if only to find out how it could be stopped. In plain words, she must have it out. Those who obey a natural impulse generally believe that they are acting by deliberate choice. Thus the doctrine of free will came to be invented: and thus Armorel, when she took a cab to the other studio, had no idea but that she was acting the most original part ever devised for any comedy.

As before, she found the artist in his dingy back room, alone. But the picture was advancing. When she saw it, a fortnight before, it was little more than the ghost of a rock with a spectral sea and a shadowy girl beside the sea. Now, it was advanced so far that one could see the beginnings of a fine painting in it.

Roland stepped forward and greeted his old friend. Why-he was already transformed. What had he done to himself? The black bar was gone from his forehead: his eyes were bright: his cheeks had got something of their old colour: his hair was trimmed, and his dress, as well as his manner, showed a return to self-respect.

'What happy thought brings you here again, Armorel?' he asked, with the familiarity of an old friend.

'I came to see you at work. Last time I came only to see you. Is it permitted?'

'Behold me! I am at work. See my picture-all there is of it.'

Armorel looked at it long and carefully. Then she murmured unintelligibly, 'Yes, of course. But there never could have been any doubt.' She turned to the artist a face full of encouragement. 'What did I prophesy for you, Roland? That you should be a great painter? Well, my prophecy will come true.'

'I hope, but I fear. I am beginning the world again.'

'Not quite. Because you have never ceased to work. Your hand is firmer and your eye is truer now than it was four years ago, when you-ceased to exhibit. But you have never ceased to work. So that you go back to the world with better things.'

'They refused to buy my things before.'

'They will not refuse now. Nay, I am certain. Don't think of money, my old friend: you must not-you shall not think of money. Think of nothing but your work-and your name. What ought to be done to a man who should forget his name? He deserves to be deprived of his genius, and to be cast out among the stupid. But you, Roland, you were always keen for distinction-were you not?'

He made no reply.

'How well I know the place,' she said, standing before the picture. 'It is the narrow channel between Round Island and Camber Rock. Oh! the dear, terrible place. When you and I were there, you remember, Roland, the water was smooth and the sea-birds were flying quietly. I have seen them driven by the wind off the island and beating up against it like a sailing ship. But in September there are no puffins. And I have seen the water racing and roaring through the channel, dashing up the black sides of the rocks-while we lay off, afraid to venture near. It was low tide when you made your sketch. I remember the long, yellow fringing sea-weed hanging from the rock six feet deep. And there is your girl sitting in the boat. Oh! I remember her very well. What a happy time she had while you were with her, Roland! You were the very first person to show her something of the outer world. It seemed, when you were gone, as if you had taken that girl and planted her on a high rock so that she could see right across the water to the world of men and Art. You always keep this girl in your pictures?'

'Always in these pictures of coast and rock.'

'Roland, I want you to make a change. Do not paint the girl of sixteen in this picture. Let me be your model instead. Put me into the picture. It is my fancy. Will you let me sit for you again?'

'Surely, Armorel, if I may. It will be-oh, but you cannot-you must not come to this den of a place.'

'Indeed, I think it is not a nice place at all. But I shall stipulate that you take another and a more decent studio immediately. Will you do this?'

'I will do anything-anything-that you command.'

'You know what I want. The return of my old friend. He is on his way back already.'

'I know-I know. But whether he ever can come back again I know not. A shade or spectre of him, perhaps, or himself, besmirched and smudged, Armorel-dragged through the mud.'

'No. He shall come back-himself-in spotless robes. Now you shall take a studio, and I will come and sit to you. I may bring my little friend, Effie Wilmot, with me? That is agreed, then. You will go, Sir, this very morning and find a studio. Have you gone back to your old friends?'

'Not yet. I had very few friends. I shall go back to them when I have got work to show. Not before.'

'I think you should go back as soon as you have taken your new studio. It will be safer and better. You have been too much alone. And there is another thing-a very important thing-the other night you made me a promise. You tore up something that looked like a cheque. And you assured me that this meant nothing less than a return to the old paths.'

'When I tore up that accursed cheque, Armorel, I became a free man.'

'So I understood. But when one talks of free men one implies the existence of the master or owner of men who are not free. Have you signified to that master or owner your intention to be his bondman no longer?'

'No. I have not.'

'This man, Roland,' she laid her hand on his, 'tell me frankly, has he any hold upon you?'


'Can he injure you in any way? Can he revenge himself upon you? Is there any old folly or past wickedness that he can bring up against you?'

'None. I have to begin the world again: that is the outside mischief.'

'All your pictures you have sold to this man, Roland, with me in every one?'

'Yes, all. Spare me, Armorel! With you in every one. Forgive me if you can!'

'I understand now, my poor friend, why you were so cast down and ashamed. What? You sold your genius-your holy, sacred genius-the spirit that is within you! You flung yourself away-your name, which is yourself-you became nothing, while this man pretends that the pictures-yours-were his! He puts his name to them, not your own-he shows them to his friends in the room that he calls his studio-he sends them to the exhibition as his own-and yet you have been able to live! Oh, how could you?-how could you? Oh! it was shameful-shameful-shameful! How could you, Roland? Oh, my master!-I have loaded you with honour-oh, how could you?-how could you?'

The vehemence of her indignation soon revived the old shame. Roland hung his head.

'How could I?' he repeated. 'Yes, say it again-ask the question a thousand times-how could I?'

'Forgive me, Roland! I have been thinking about it continually. It is a thing so dreadfu

l, and yesterday something-an unexpected something-brought it back to my mind-and-and-made me understand more what it meant. And oh, Roland, how could you? I thought, before, that you had only idled and trifled away your time; but now I know. And again-again-again-how could you?'

'It is no excuse-but it is an explanation-I do not defend myself. Not the least in the world-but ... Armorel, I was starving.'


'I could not sell my pictures. No one wanted them. The dealers would give me nothing but a few shillings apiece for them. I was penniless, and I was in debt. A man who drops into London out of Australia has no circle of friends and cousins who will stand by him. I was alone. Perhaps I loved too well the luxurious life. I tried for employment on the magazines and papers, but without success. In truth, I knew not where to look for the next week's rent and the next week's meals. I was a Failure, and I was penniless. Do you ask more?'

'Then the man came--'

'He came-my name was worth nothing-he asked me to suppress it. My work-which no one would buy-he offered to buy for what seemed, in my poverty, substantial prices if I would let him call it his own. What was the bargain? A life of ease against the bare chance of a name with the certainty of hard times. I was so desperate that I accepted.'

'You accepted. Yes.... But you might have given it up at any moment.'

'To be plunged back again into the penniless state. For the life of ease, mark you, brought no ease but a bare subsistence. Only quite lately, terrified by the success of the last picture, my employer has offered to give me two thirds of all he gets. The cheque you saw me tear up and burn was the first considerable sum I have ever received. It is gone, and I am penniless again--'

'And now that you are penniless?'

'Now I shall pawn my watch and chain and everything else that I possess. I shall finish this picture, and I will sell it for what the dealers will give me for it. Too late, this year, for exhibition. And so ... we shall see. If the worst comes I can carry a pair of boards up and down Piccadilly, opposite to the Royal Academy, and dream of the artistic life that once I hoped would be my own.'

'You will do better than that, Roland,' said Armorel, moved to tears. 'Oh! you will make a great name yet. But this man-don't tell me his name. Roland, promise me, please, not to tell me his name. I want you-just now-to think that it is your own secret-to yourself. If I should find it out, by accident, that would be-just now-my secret-to myself. This man-you have not yet broken with him?'

'Not yet.'

'Will you go to him and tell him that it is all over? Or will you write to him?'

'I thought that I would wait, and let him come to me.'

'I would not, if I were you. I would write and tell him at once, and plainly. Sit down, Roland, and write now-at once-without delay. Then you will feel happier.'

'I will do what you command me,' he replied meekly. He had, indeed, resolved with all his might and main that the rupture should be made; but, as yet, he had not made it.

'Get paper, then, and write.'

He obeyed, and sat down. 'What shall I say?' he asked.

'Write: "After four years of slavery, I mean to become a man once more. Our compact is over. You shall no longer put your name to my works; and I will no longer share in the infamy of this fraud. Find, if you can, some other starving painter, and buy him. I have torn up your cheque, and I am now at work on a picture which will be my own. If there is any awkwardness about the subject and the style, in connection with the name upon it, that awkwardness will be yours, not mine." So-will you read it aloud? I think,' said Armorel, 'that it will do. He will probably come here and bluster a little. He may even threaten. He may weep. You will-Roland-are you sure-you will be adamant?'

'I swear, Armorel! I will be true to my promise.'

Armorel heaved a sigh. Would he stand steadfast? He might have much to endure. Would he be able to endure hardness? It is only the very young man who can be happy in a garret and live contentedly on a crust. At twenty-six or twenty-seven, the age at which Roland had now arrived, one is no longer quite so young. The garret is dismal: the crust is insipid, unless there are solid grounds for hope. Yet he had the solid grounds of improved work-good work.

'Should you be afraid of him?' she asked.

'Afraid of him?' Roland laughed. 'Why, I never meet him but I curse him aloud. Afraid of him? No. I have never been afraid of anything but of becoming penniless. Poverty-destitution-is an awful spectre. And not only poverty but-I confess, with shame--'

'Oh! man of little faith'-she did not want to hear the end of that confession-'you could not endure a single hour. You did this awful thing for want of money.'

'I did,' said Roland, meekly.

'The Way of Pleasure and the Way of Wealth. I remember-you told me long ago-they draw the young man by ropes. But not the girl. Why not the girl? I have never felt this strange yearning for riot and excess. In all the poetry, the novels, the pictures, and the plays the young men are always being dragged by ropes to the Way of Pleasure. Are men so different from women? What does it mean-this yearning? I cannot understand it. What is your Way of Pleasure that it should attract you so? Your poetry and your novels cannot explain it. I see feasting in the Way of Pleasure, drinking, singing, dancing, gambling, sitting up all night, and love-making. As for work, there is none. Why should the young man want to feast? It is like a City Alderman to be always thinking of banquets. Why should you want to drink wine perpetually? I suppose you do not actually get tipsy. If you can sing and like singing, you can sing over your work, I suppose. As for love-making'-she paused. The subject, where a young man and a maiden discuss it, has to be treated delicately.

'I have always supposed'-she added, with hesitation, for experience was lacking-'that two people fall in love when they are fitted for each other. But in this, your wonderful Way of Pleasure, the poets write as if every man was always wanting to make love to every woman if she is pleasant to look at, and without troubling whether she is good or bad, wise or silly. Oh! every woman! any woman! there is neither dignity of manhood nor self-respect nor respect to woman in this folly.'

'You cannot understand any of it, Armorel,' said Roland. 'We ought all of us to be flogged from Newgate to Tyburn.'

'That would not make me understand. Flora, Chloe, Daphne, Amaryllis-they are all the same to the poet. A pretty girl seems all that he cares for. Can that be love?'

'-And back again,' said Roland.

'Still I should not understand. In the poetry I think that love-making comes first, and eating and drinking afterwards. As for love-making,' she spoke philosophically, as one in search of truth, 'as for love-making, I believe I could wait contentedly without it until I found exactly the one man I could love. But that I should take a delight in writing or singing songs about making love to every man who was a handsome fellow-any man-every man-oh! can one conceive such a thing? There is but one Way of Pleasure to such as you, Roland. If I could paint so good a picture as this is going to be, it would be a life-long joy. I should never, never, never tire of it. I should want no other pleasure-nothing better-than to work day after day, to work and study, to watch and observe, to feel the mastery of hand and eye. Oh! Roland-with this before you-with this'-she pointed to the picture-'you sold your soul-you-you-you!-for feasting and drinking and-and-perhaps--'

'No, Armorel: no. Everything else if you like, but not love-making.'

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