The Westcotes by Arthur Quiller-Couch
Chapter X. Dartmoor
Dorothea had the profoundest faith in her brother's ability. That he hit at once on this simple solution which had eluded her through many wakeful nights did not surprise her in the least. Nor did she doubt for a moment that he would manage it as he promised.
But she could not thank him. He had beaten her spirit sorely--so sorely, that for days her whole body ached with the bruise. She did not accuse him: her one flash of contempt had lasted for an instant only, and the old habit of reverence quickly effaced it. But he had exposed her weakness; had forced her to see it, naked and pitiful, with no chivalry--either manly or brotherly--covering it; and seeing it with nothing to depend upon, she learned for the first time in her life the high, stern lesson of independence.
She learned it unconsciously, but she never forgot it. And it is to Endymion's credit that he recognised the great alteration and allowed for it. He had driven her too far. She would never again be the same Dorothea. And never again by word or look did he remind her of that hour of abasement.
An exchange of prisoners was not to be managed in a day, and would take weeks, perhaps six weeks or a couple of months. He discussed this with her, quietly, as a matter of business entrusted to him, explained what steps he had taken, what letters he had written; when he expected definite news from the War Office. She met him on the same ground. "Yes, he could not have done better." She trusted him absolutely.
And in fact he had been better than his word. Ultimate success, to be sure, was certain. It were strange if Mr. Westcote, who had opened his purse to support a troop of Yeomanry, who held two parliamentary seats at the Government's service and two members at call to bully the War Office whenever he desired, who might at any time have had a baronetcy for the asking--it were strange indeed if Mr. Westcote could not obtain so trivial a favour as the exchange of a prisoner. He could do this, but he could not appreciably hurry the correspondence by which Pall Mall bargained a Frenchman in the forest of Dartmoor against an Englishman in the fortress of Briancon in the Hautes Alpes. Foreseeing delays, he had written privately to the Commandant at Dartmoor--a Major Sotheby, with whom he had some slight acquaintance--advising him of his efforts and requesting him to show the prisoner meanwhile all possible indulgence. The letter contained a draft, for ten pounds, to be spent upon small comforts at the Commandant's discretion; but M. Raoul was not to be informed of the donor, or of his approaching liberty.
In theory--such was the routine--Raoul remained one of the Axcester contingent of prisoners, and all reports concerning him must pass through the Commissary's hands. In the last week of October, when brother and sister daily expected the cartel, arrived a report that the prisoner was in hospital with a sharp attack of pleurisy. Major Sotheby added a private note:-
"I feared yesterday that the exchange would come too late for him; but to-day the Medical Officer, who has just left me, speaks hopefully. I have no doubt, however, that a winter in this climate would be fatal. The fellow's lungs are breaking down, and even if they could stand the fogs, the cold must finish him."
Dorothea stood by a window in the library when Endymion read this out to her; the very window through which she had been gazing that spring morning when Raoul first kissed her. To-day the first of the winter's snow fell gently, persistently, out of a leaden and windless sky.
She turned. "I must go to him," she said.
"But to what purpose--"
"Oh, you may trust me!"
"My dear girl, that was not in my mind." He spoke gently. "But until the warrant arrives--"
"We will give it until to-morrow; by every account it should reach us to-morrow. You shall take it with me. I must see him once more; only once--in your presence, if you wish."
Next morning they rode into the town together, an hour before the mail's arrival. Endymion alighted at the Town House to write a business letter or two before strolling down to the post office. Dorothea cantered on to the top of the hill, and then walked Mercury to and fro, while she watched the taller rise beyond. The snow had ceased falling; but a crisp north wind skimmed the drifts and powdered her dark habit.
Twice she pulled out her watch; but the coach was up to time in spite of the heavy roads; and as it topped the rise she reined Mercury to the right-about and cantered back to await it. Already the street had begun to fill as usual; and, as usual, there was General Rochambeau picking his way along the pavement to present himself for the Admiral's letter--the letter which never arrived.
Would her letter never arrive?
He halted on the kerb by her stirrup. She asked after the Admiral's health.
"Ah, Mademoiselle, if ever he leaves his bed again, it will be a miracle."
She was not listening. Age, age again!--it makes all the difference. Here came the coach--did it hold a letter for Raoul? Raoul was young.
The coach rolled by with less noise than usual, on the carpet of snow churned brown with traffic. As it passed, the guard lifted his horn and blew cheerily. She followed, telling herself it was a good omen. During the long wait outside the post office she rebuked herself more than once for building a hope upon it. Name after name was called, and at each call a prisoner pushed forward to the doorway for his letter. She caught sight of the General on the outskirts of the crowd. Her brother would not come out until every letter had been distributed.
But when he appeared in the doorway she read the good news in his face. He made his way briskly towards her, the prisoners falling back to give passage.
"Right; it has come," he said. "Trot away home and have the valises packed, while I run into 'The Dogs' and order the chaise."
Once clear of the town, she galloped. There was little need to hurry, for her own valise had been packed overnight.
Having sent Mudge to attend to her brother's, she ran to Narcissus' room--his scriptorium, as he called it.
Narcissus was at home to-day, busy with the cellar accounts. He took stock twice a year and composed a report in language worthy of a survey of the Roman Empire. Before he could look up, Dorothea had kissed him on the crown of his venerable head.
"Such news, dear! Endymion has ordered a chaise from 'The Dogs,' and is going to take me to Dartmoor!"
"Dartmoor--God bless my soul!" He rubbed his head, and added with a twinkle: "Why, what have you been doing?"
"Endymion has a cartel of exchange for M. Raoul, and we are to carry it."
"Ah, so that is what you two have been conspiring over? I smelt a rat somewhere. But, really, this is delightful of you--delightful of you both. Only, why on earth should you be carrying the release yourselves, in this weather."
"He is very ill," said Dorothea, seriously.
"Indeed? Poor fellow, poor fellow. Still, that scarcely explains--"
"And you will be good, and take your meals regularly when Mudge beats the gong? And you won't sit up late and set fire to the house? But I must run off and tell everyone to take care of you."
She kissed him again, and was half-way down the corridor before he called after her:
"Dorothea, Dorothea! the drawings!"
"Ah, to be sure; I forgot," she murmured, as he thrust the parcel into her hand.
"Forgot? Forgot the drawings? But, God bless my soul!--"
He passed his hand over his grey hairs and stared down the corridor after her.
The roads were heavy to start, with, and beyond Chard they grew heavier. At Honiton, which our travellers reached at midnight, it was snowing; and Dorothea, when the sleepy chamber-maid aroused her at dawn, looked out upon a forbidding world of white. The postboys were growling, and she half feared that Endymion would abandon the journey for the day. But if he lacked her zeal, he had the true Englishman's hatred of turning back. She, who had known him always for a master of men, learned a new awe of her splendid brother. He took command; he cross-examined landlord and postboys, pooh-poohed their objections, extracted from them in half-a-dozen curt questions more information than, five minutes before, they were conscious of possessing, to judge from the scratching of heads which produced it; finally, he handed Dorothea into the chaise, sprang in himself, and closed discussion with a slam of the door. They were driven off amid the salaams of ostler, boots, waiter, and two chambermaids, among whom he had scattered largess with the lordliest hand.
So the chaise ploughed through Exeter to Moreton Hampstead, where they supped and rested for another night. But before dawn they were off again. Snow lay in thick drifts on the skirts of the great moor, and snow whirled about them as they climbed, until day broke upon a howling desert, across which Dorothea peered but could discern no features. Not leagues but years divided Bayfield from this tableland, high over all the world, uninhabited, without tree or gate or hedge. Her eyes were heavy with lack of sleep, smarting with the bite of the north wind, which neither ceased nor eased until, towards ten o'clock, the carriage began to lumber downhill towards Two Bridges, under the lee of Crockern Tor. Beyond came a heavy piece of collar work, the horses dropping to a walk as they heaved through the drifts towards a depression between two tors closing the view ahead. Dorothea's eyes, avoiding the wind, were fixed on the tor to the left, when Endymion touched her hand and pointed towards the base of the other. There, grey--almost black--against the white hillside, a mass of masonry loomed up through the weather; the great circle of the War Prison.
The road did not lead them to it direct. They must halt first at the bare village of Prince Town, and drink coffee and warm themselves at the "Plume of Feathers Inn," before facing the last few hundred yards beneath the lee of North Hessary. But a little before noon, Dorothea-- still with a sense of being lifted on a platform miles above the world she knew--alighted before a tremendous archway of piled granite set in a featureless wall, and closed with a sheeted gate of iron. A grey- coated sentry, pacing here in front of his snow-capped box, challenged and demanded their business.
"Visitors for the Commandant!" The sentry tugged at an iron bellpull, and a bell tolled twice within. Dorothea's feet were half-frozen in spite of her wraps--she stamped them in the snow while she studied the gateway and the enormous blocks which arched it, unhewn save for two words carved in Roman capitals--"PARCERE SUBJECTIS."
A key turned in the wicket. "Visitors for the Commandant!" They stepped through, and after pausing a moment while the porter shot the lock again behind them, followed him across the yard to the Commandant's quarters.
The outer wall of the great War Prison enclosed a circle of thirty acres; within it a second wall surrounded an acre in which stood the five rectangular blocks of the prison proper, with two slightly smaller buildings--the one a hospital, the other set apart for the petty officers; and between the inner and outer walls ran a via militaris, close on a mile in circumference, constantly paraded by the guard, and having raised platforms from which the sentinels could overlook the inner wall and the area. The area was not completely circular, since, where it faced the great gate, a segment had been cut out of it for the Commandant's quarters and outbuildings and the entrance yard, across which, our travellers now followed their guide.
The Commandant hurried out from his office to welcome them--a bustling little officer with sandy hair and the kindliest possible face; a trifle self-important, obviously proud of his prison, and, after a fashion, of his prisoners too; anxiously, elaborately polite in his manner, especially towards Dorothea.
"Major Westcote!"--he gave Endymion his full title--"My dear sir, this is indeed--And Miss Westcote?" he bowed as he was introduced, "Delighted--honoured! But what a journey! You must be famished, positively; you will be wanting luncheon at once--yes, really you must allow me. No? A glass of sherry, then, and a biscuit at least . . ." He ran to the door, called to his orderly to bring some glasses, and came back rubbing his hands. "It's an ill wind, as they say . . ."
"We have come with the order about which we have corresponded."
"For that poor fellow Raoul?" The Commandant nodded gaily and smiled; and Dorothea, who had been watching his face, felt the load dissolve and roll off her heart, as a pile of snow slides from a bough in the sunshine. "He is better, I am glad to report--out of bed and fairly convalescent indeed. But I hope my message did not alarm you needlessly. It was touch-and-go with him for twenty-four hours; still, he was bettering when I wrote. And to bring you all this way, and in such weather!"
"My sister and I," explained Endymion, "take a particular interest in his case."
But the voluble officer was not so easily silenced.
"So, to be sure, I gathered." He bowed gallantly to Dorothea. "'O woman! in our hours of ease, Uncertain, coy, and hard to please'--not, of course, that I attribute any such foibles to Miss Westcote, but for the sake of the conclusion."
"Can we see him?"
"Eh? Before luncheon? Oh, most assuredly, if you wish it. He has been transferred to the Convalescents' Ward. We will step across at once." He drew from his pocket a small master-key, attached by a steel chain to his belt, and blew into the wards thoughtfully while he studied the paper handed to him by Endymion. "Quite in order, of course. No doubt, you and Miss Westcote would prefer to break the good news to him in private? Yes, yes; I will have him sent up to the Consulting Room. The Doctor has finished his morning rounds, and you will be quite alone there."
He picked up his cap and escorted them out and across the court to the gate of the main prison. Beyond this Dorothea found herself in a vast snowy yard, along two sides of which ran covered ways or piazzas open to the air, but faced with iron bars, and behind these bars flitted the forms of the prisoners at exercise, stamping the flagged pavement to keep their starved blood in circulation. At a sight of the Commandant with his two visitors--so small a spectacle had power to divert them-- all this movement, this stamping, was hushed suddenly. Voices broke into chatter; faces appeared between the bars and stared.
"Yes," said the Commandant, reading Dorothea's thought, "a large family to be responsible for! How many would you guess, now?"
"A thousand, at least," she murmured.
"Six thousand! Each of those blocks yonder will accommodate fifteen hundred men. And then there is the hospital--usually pretty full at this season, I regret to say. Come, I won't detain you; but really in passing you must have a look at one of our dormitories."
He threw open a door, and she gazed in upon a long-drawn avenue of iron pillars slung with double tiers of hammocks. The place seemed clean enough: at the far end of the vista a fatigue gang of prisoners was busy with pails and brushes; but either it had not been thoroughly ventilated, or the dense numbers packed in it for so many hours a day had given the building an atmosphere of its own, warm and unpleasant, if not precisely foetid, after the pure, stinging air of the moorland.
"We can sleep seven hundred here," said the Commandant; "and another dormitory of the same size runs overhead. The top story they use as a promenade and for indoor recreation." He pointed to a number of grilles set in the wall at the back, at equal distances. "For air," he explained, "and also for keeping watch on messieurs. Yes, we find that necessary. Behind each is a small chamber, hollowed most scientifically, quite a little temple of acoustics. If Miss Westcote, now, would care to step into one and listen, while I stand below with the Major and converse in ordinary tones--"
"No, no," Dorothea declined, hurriedly, and with a shiver.
It hurt her to think of Raoul herded among seven hundred miserables in this endless barrack, his every movement overlooked, his smallest speech overheard, by an eaves-dropping sentry.
"I think, Endymion chimed in, my sister feels her long journey, and would be glad to get our business over."
"Ah, to be sure--a thousand pardons!"
The Commandant shut the door and piloted them across to the hospital block. Here on the threshold the same warm, acrid atmosphere assailed Dorothea's nostrils, and almost choked her breathing. Their guide led the way up a flight of stone steps to the first floor, and down a whitewashed corridor, lit along one side with narrow barred casements. A little more than half-way down the corridor the blank wall facing these casements was pierced by a low arched passage. Into this burrow the Commandant dived; and, standing outside, they heard a key turned in a lock. He reappeared and beckoned to them.
"From the gallery here," he whispered, "you look right down into the Convalescent Ward."
Through the iron bars of the gallery Dorothea caught a glimpse of a long bare room, with twenty or thirty dejected figures in suits and caps of greyish-blue flannel, huddled about a stove. Some were playing at cards, others at dominoes. The murmur of their voices ascended and hummed in the little passage.
"Hist! Your friend is below there, if you care to have a peep at him."
But Dorothea had already drawn back. All this spying and listening revolted her. The polite Commandant noted the movement.
"You prefer that he should be fetched at once?" He stepped past them into the corridor. "Smithers!" he called. "Smithers!"
A hospital orderly appeared at a door almost opposite the passage, and saluted.
"Run down to the Convalescent Ward and fetch up Number Two-six-seven- two.--I know the number of each of my children. I never make a mistake," he confided in Dorothea's ear. "As quick as you can, please! Stay; you may add that some visitors have called and wish to speak with him."
The orderly saluted again, and hurried off.
"You wish, of course, to see him alone together?"
"I think," answered Endymion, slowly, "my sister would prefer a word or two with him alone."
"Certainly. Will you step into the surgery, Miss Westcote?" He indicated the door at which the orderly had appeared. "Smithers will not take two minutes in fetching the prisoner; and perhaps, if you will excuse us, a visit to the hospital itself will repay your brother. We are rather proud of our sanitation here: a glance over our arrangements--five minutes only--"
Endymion, at a nod from Dorothea, permitted himself to be led away by the inexorable man.
She watched them to the end of the corridor, and had her hand on the surgery door to push it open, when a voice from below smote her ears.
"Number Two-six-seven-two to come to the surgery at once, to see visitors!"
The voice rang up through the little passage behind her. She turned; the door at the end of it stood half-open; beyond it she saw the bars of the gallery, and through these a space of whitewashed wall at the end of the ward.
She was turning again, when a babble of voices answered the orderly's announcement. "Raoul! Raoul!" half-a-dozen were calling, and then one spoke up sharp and distinct:
"Tenez, mon bonhomme, ce sera votre gilet, a coup sur!"
A burst of laughter followed.
"C'est son gilet--his little Waistcoat--a chauffer la poitrine--"
"Des visiteurs, dit il? Voyons, coquin, n'y-a-t-il pas par hasard une visiteuse de la partie."
"Une 'Waistcoat' par example?--de quarante ans environ, le drap un peu rape . . ."
"Qui se nomme Dorothee--ce que veut dire le gilet dieudonne . . ."
"Easy now!" the Orderly's voice remonstrated. "Easy, I tell you, ye born mill-clappers! There's a lady in the party, if that's what you're asking."
Dorothea put out a hand against the jamb of the surgery door, to steady herself She heard the smack of a palm below and some one uttered a serio-comic groan.
"Enfonce! Il m'a parie dix sous qu'elle viendrait avant le jour de Pan, et aussi du tabac avec tout le Numero Six. Nous en ferons la dot de Mademoiselle!" The fellow burst out singing--
"J'ai du bon tabac Dans ma tabatiere."
"Dites donc, mon petit,"--but the cheerful epithet he bestowed on Raoul is unquotable here--"Elle ne fume pas, votre Anglaise? Elle n'est pas Creole, c'est entendu."
Dorothea had stepped into the surgery. A small round table stood in the middle of the room; she caught at the edge of it and rested so for a moment, for the walls seemed to be swaying and she durst not lift her hands to shut out the roars of laughter. They rang in her ears and shouted and stunned her. Her whole body writhed.
The hubbub below sank to a confused murmur. She heard footsteps in the corridor--the firm tramp of the orderly followed by the shuffle of list slippers.
"Number Two-six-seven-two is outside, ma'am. Am I to show him in?"
She bent her head and moved towards the fireplace. She heard him shuffle in, and the door shut behind him. Still she did not turn.
"Dorothea!"--his voice shook with joy, with passion. How well she knew that deep Provencal tremolo. She could have laughed aloud in her bitterness.
She faced him at length. He stood there, stretching out both hands to her. He was handsome as ever, but pale and sadly pinched. Beyond all doubt he had suffered. His grey-blue hospital suit hung about him in folds.
In her eyes he read at once that something was wrong--but without comprehending. "You sent for me," he stammered; "you have come--"
She found her voice and, to her surprise, it was quite firm.
"Yes, we have brought your release," she said; and, watching his eyes, saw the joy leap up in them, saw it quenched the next instant as he composed his features to a fond solicitude for her.
"But you?" he murmured. "What has happened? Tell me--no, do not draw away! Your hand, at least."
Contempt, for herself or for him, gave her a moment's strength, but it broke down again.
"It is horrible!" was all she answered and looked about her with a shiver.
"Ah, the place frightens you! Well," he laughed, reassuringly, "it frightened me at first. But for the thought of you, dearest, to comfort--"
She stepped past him and opened the door. For a moment a wild notion seized him that she was escaping, and he put out an imploring hand; but he saw that, with her hand on the jamb, she was listening, and he, too, listened. The voices in the Convalescent Ward came up to them, scarcely muffled, through the low passage, and with them a cackling laugh. Then he understood.
Their eyes met. He bowed his head.
"Nevertheless, I have suffered."
He said it humbly, after many seconds, and in a voice so low that it seemed a second or two before she heard. For the first time she put out a hand and touched his sleeve.
"Yes, you have suffered, and for me. Let me go on believing that. You did a noble thing, and I shall try to remember you by it--to remember that you were capable of it. 'It was for my sake,' I shall say, and then I shall be proud. Oh, yes, sometimes I shall be very proud! But in love--"
Her voice faltered, and he looked up sharply.
"In love"--she smiled, but passing faintly--"it's the little things, is it not? It's the little things that count."
She touched his sleeve again, and passed into the room, leaving him there at a standstill, as Endymion and the Commandant came round the corner at the far end of the corridor.
"Excuse me," said Endymion, and, stepping past Raoul without a glance, looked into the surgery. After a moment he shut the door quietly, and, standing with his back to it, addressed the prisoner: "I perceive, sir, that my sister has told you the news. We have effected an exchange for you, and the Commandant tells me that to-morrow, if the roads permit, you will be sent down to Plymouth and released. It is unnecessary for you to thank me; it would, indeed, be offensive. I wish you a safe passage home, and pray heaven to spare me the annoyance of seeing your face again."
As Raoul bowed and moved away, dragging his feet weakly in their list slippers, Mr. Westcote turned to the Commandant, who during this address had kept a discreet distance.
"With your leave, we will continue our stroll, and return for my sister in a few minutes."
The Commandant jumped at the suggestion.
Dorothea heard their footsteps retreating, and knew that her brother's thoughtfulness had found her this short respite. She had dropped into the orderly's chair, and now bowed her head upon the prison doctor's ledger, which lay open on the table before it.
"Oh, my love! How could you do it? How could you? How could you?"