The Westcotes by Arthur Quiller-Couch
Chapter I. The Westcotes of Bayfield
A mural tablet in Axcester Parish Church describes Endymion Westcote as "a conspicuous example of that noblest work of God, the English Country Gentleman." Certainly he was a typical one.
In almost every district of England you will find a family which, without distinguishing itself in any particular way, has held fast to the comforts of life and the respect of its neighbours for generation after generation. Its men have never shone in court, camp, or senate; they prefer tenacity to enterprise, look askance upon wit (as a dangerous gift), and are even a little suspicious of eminence. On the other hand they make excellent magistrates, maintain a code of manners most salutary for the poor in whose midst they live and are looked up to; are as a rule satisfied, like the old Athenian, if they leave to their heirs not less but a little more than they themselves inherited, and deserve, as they claim, to be called the backbone of Great Britain. Many of the women have beauty, still more have an elegance which may pass for it, and almost all are pure in thought, truthful, assiduous in deeds of charity, and marry for love of those manly qualities which they have already esteemed in their brothers.
Such a family were the Westcotes of Bayfield, or Bagvil, in 1810. Their "founder" had settled in Axcester towards the middle of the seventeenth century, and prospered--mainly, it was said, by usury. A little before his death, which befel in 1668, he purchased Bayfield House from a decayed Royalist who had lost his only son in the Civil Wars; and to Bayfield and the ancestral business (exalted now into Banking) his descendants continued faithful. One or both of the two brothers who, with their half-sister, represented the family in 1810, rode in on every week-day to their Bank-office in Axcester High Street,--a Georgian house of brick, adorned with a porch of plaster fluted to the shape of a sea-shell, out of which a. Cupid smiled down upon a brass plate and the inscription "WESTCOTE AND WESTCOTE," and on the first floor, with windows as tall as the rooms, so that from the street you could see through one the shapely legs of Mr. Endymion Westcote at his knee-hole table, and through another the legs of Mr. Narcissus. The third and midmost window was a dummy, having been bricked up to avoid the window-tax imposed by Mr. Pitt--in whose statesmanship, however, the brothers had firmly believed. Their somewhat fantastic names were traditional in the Westcote pedigree and dated from, the seventeenth century.
Endymion, the elder, (who took the lead of Narcissus in all, things), was the fine flower of the Westcote stocks, and, out of question, the most influential man in Axcester and for many a mile round justice of the Peace for the county of Somerset and Major of its Yeomanry, he served "our town," (so he called it) as Overseer of the Poor, Governor of the Grammar School, Chairman of Feoffees, Churchwarden, everything in short but Mayor--an office which he left to the tradesmen, while taking care to speak of it always with respect, and indeed to see it properly filled. The part of County Magistrate--to which he had been born--he played to perfection, and with a full sense of its dignified amenity. (It was whispered that the Lord Lieutenant himself stood in some awe of him.) His favourite character, however, was that of plain citizen of his native town. "I'm an Axcester man," he would declare in his public speeches, and in his own way he loved and served the little borough. For its good he held its Parliamentary representation in the hollow of his hand; and, as Overseer of the Poor, had dared public displeasure by revising the Voters' List and defying a mandamus of the Court of King's Bench rather than allow Axcester to fail in its duty of returning two members to support Mr. Percevall's Ministry. In 1800, when the price of wheat rose to 184s a quarter, a poor woman dropped dead in the market place of starvation. At once a mob collected, hoisted a quartern-loaf on a pole with the label--"We will have Bread or Blood," and started to pillage the shop's in High Street. It was Endymion Westcote who rode up single-handed, (they, were carrying the only constable on their shoulders) and faced and dispersed the rioters. It was he who headed the subscription list, prevailed on the purchase a wagon-load of potatoes and persuaded the people to plant them--for even the seed potatoes had been eaten, and the gardens lay undigged. It was he who met the immediate famine by importing large quantities of rice. Finally, it was he, through his influence with the county, who brought back prosperity by getting the French prisoners sent to Axcester.
We shall talk of these French prisoners by and by. To conclude this portrait of Endymion Westcote. He was a handsome, fresh-complexioned man, over six feet in height, and past his forty-fifth year; a bachelor and a Protestant. In his youth he had been noted for gallantry, and preserved some traces of it in his address. His grandfather had married a French lady, and although this union had not sensibly diluted the Westcote blood, Endymion would refer to it to palliate a youthful taste for playing the fiddle. He spoke French fluently, with a British accent which, when appointed Commissary, he took pains to improve by conversation with the prisoners, and was fond of discussing heredity with the two most distinguished of them--the Vicomte de Tocqueville and General Rochambeau.
Narcissus, the younger brother, had neither the height nor the good looks nor the masterful carriage of Endymion, and made no pretence to rival him as a man of affairs. He professed to be known as the student of the family, dabbled in archaeology, and managed two or three local societies and field clubs, which met ostensibly to listen to his papers, but really to picnic. An accident had decided this bent of his --the discovery, during some repairs, of a fine Roman pavement beneath the floor of Bayfield House, At the age of eighteen, during a Cambridge vacation, Narcissus had written and privately printed a description of this pavement, proving not only that its tessellae represented scenes in the mythological story of Bacchus, but that the name "Bayfield," in some old deeds and documents written "Bagvil" or "Baggevil," was neither more nor less than a corruption of Bacchi Villa. Axcester and its neighbourhood are rich in Roman remains--the town stands, indeed, on the old Fosse Way--and, tempted by early success, Narcissus rode his hobby further and further afield. Now, at the age of forty-two, he could claim to be an authority on the Roman occupation of Britain, and especially on the conquests of Vespasian. The circle of--the Westcotes' acquaintance gathered in the fine hall of Bayfield--or, as Narcissus preferred to call it, the atrium--drank tea, admired the pavement, listened to the alleged exploits of Vespasian, and wondered when the brothers would marry. Time went on, repeating these assemblies; and the question became, Will they ever marry? Apparently they had no thought of it, no idea that it was expected of them; and since they had both passed forty, the question might be taken as answered. But that so personable a man as Endymion Westcote would let the family perish was monstrous to suppose. He kept his good looks and his fresh complexion; even now some maiden would easily be found to answer his Olympian nod; and a vein of recklessness sometimes cropped up through his habitual caution, and kept his friends alert for surprises. In the hunting-field, for instance,--and he rode to hounds twice a week,--he made a rule of avoiding fences; but the world quite rightly set this down to a proper care for his person rather than to timidity, since on one famous occasion, riding up to find the whole field hesitating before a "rasper" (they were hunting a strange country that day), he put his horse at it and sailed over with a nonchalance relieved only by his ringing laugh on the farther side. It was odds he would clear the fence of matrimony, some day, with the same casual heartiness; and, in any case, he was masterful enough to insist on Narcissus marrying, should it occur to him to wish it.
Oddly enough, the gossips who still arranged marriages for the brothers had given over speculating upon their hostess, Miss Dorothea. She could not, of course, perpetuate the name; but this by no means accounted for all the difference in their concern. Dorothea Westcote was now thirty- seven, or five years younger than Narcissus, whose mother had died soon after his birth. The widower had created one of the few scandals in the Westcote history by espousing, some four years later, a young woman of quite inferior class, the daughter of a wholesale glover in Axcester. The new wife had good looks, but they did not procure her pardon; and she made the amplest and speediest amends by dying within twelve months, and leaving a daughter who in no way resembled her. The husband survived her just a dozen years.
Dorothea, the daughter, was a plain girl; her brothers, though kind and fond of her after a fashion, did not teach her to forget it. She loved them, but her love partook of awe: they were so much cleverer, as well as handsomer, than she. Having no mother or friend of her own sex to imitate, she grow into an awkward woman, sensitive to charm in others and responding to it without jealousy, but ignorant of what it meant or how it could be acquired. She picked up some French from her brother Endymion, and masters were hired who taught her to dance, to paint in water colours, and to play with moderate skill upon the harp. But few partners had ever sought her in the ballroom; her only drawings which anyone ever asked to see were half-a-dozen of the Bayfield pavement, executed for Narcissus' monograph; and her harp she played in her own room. Now and then Endymion would enquire how she progressed with her music, would listen to her report and observe: "Ah, I used to do a little fiddling myself." But he never put her proficiency to the test.
Somehow, and long before the world came to the same conclusion, she had resolved that marriage was not for her. She adored babies, though they usually screamed at the sight of her, and she thought it would be delightful to have one of her own who would not scream; but apart from this vague sentiment, she accepted her fate without sensible regret. By watching and copying the mistresses of the few houses she visited she learned to play the hostess at Bayfield, and, as time brought confidence, played it with credit. She knew that people laughed at her, and that yet they liked her; their liking and their laughter puzzled her about equally. For the rest, she was proud of Bayfield and content, though one day much resembled another, to live all her life there, devoted to God and her garden. Visitors always praised her garden.
Axcester lies on the western side and mostly at the foot of a low hill set accurately in the centre of a ring of hills slightly higher-the raised bottom of a saucer would be no bad simile. The old Roman road cuts straight across this rise, descends between the shops of the High Street, passes the church, crosses the Axe by a narrow bridge, and climbing again passes the iron gates of Bayfield House, a mile above the river. So straight is it that Dorothea could keep her brothers in view from the gates until they dismounted before their office door, losing sight of them for a minute or two only among the elms by the bridge. Her boudoir window commanded the same prospect; and every day as the London coach topped the hill, her maid Polly would run with news of it. The two would be watching, often before the guard's horn awoke the street and fetched the ostlers out in a hurry from the "Dogs Inn" stables with their relay of four horses. Miss Dorothea possessed a telescope, too; and if the coach were dressed with laurels and flags announcing a victory, mistress and maid would run to the gates and wave their handkerchiefs as it passed.
Sometimes, too, Polly would announce a post-chaise, and the telescope decide whether the postboys wore the blue or the buff. Nor were these their only causes of excitement; for the great Bayfield elm, a rood below the gates and in full view of them, marked the westward boundary of the French prisoners on parole. Some of these were quite regular in their walks for instance, Rear-Admiral de Wailly-Duchemin and General Rochambeau, who came at three o'clock or thereabouts on Wednesdays and Saturdays, summer and winter. At six paces on the far side of the elm-- such was their punctilio--they halted, took snuff, linked arms again and turned back. (Dorothea had entertained them both at Bayfield, and met them at dinner in one or two neighbouring houses.) On the same days, and on Mondays as well, old Jean Pierre Pichou, ex-boatswain of the Didon frigate, would come along arm-in-arm with Julien Carales, alias Frap d'Abord, ex-marechal des logis--Pichou, with his wooden leg, and Frap d'Abord twisting a grey moustache and uttering a steady torrent of imprecation--or so it sounded. These could be counted on; but scores of others stopped and turned at the Bayfield elm, and Polly had names for them all. Moreover, on one memorable day Dorothea had watched one who did not halt precisely at the elm. A few paces beyond it, and on the side of the road facing the grounds, straggled an old orchard, out of which her brother Endymion had been missing, of late, a quantity of his favourite pippins--by name (but it may have been a local one) Somerset Warriors. The month was October, the time about half-past four, the light dusky. Yet Miss Dorothea, lingering by the gate, saw a young man pass the Bayfield elm and climb the hedge; and saw and heard him nail against an apple-tree overhanging the road, a board with white letters on a black ground. When it was fixed, the artist descended to the road and gazed up admiringly at his work. In the act of departing he turned, and suddenly stood still again. His face was toward the Bayfield gate. Dorothea could not tell if he saw her, but he remained thus, motionless, for almost a minute. Then he seemed to recollect himself and marched off briskly down the road. Early next morning she descended and read the inscription, which ran: "Restaurant pour les Aspirants."
She said nothing about it, and soon after breakfast the board was removed.