The Westcotes by Arthur Quiller-Couch
Chapter XI. The New Dorothea
Two hours later they set out on their homeward journey.
The Commandant, still voluble, escorted them to the gate. As Dorothea climbed into the chaise and Endymion shook up the rugs and cushions, a large brown-paper parcel rolled out upon the snow. She gave a little cry of dismay:
"We forgot to deliver them."
"Oh, confound the things!"
Endymion was for pitching them back into the chaise.
"But no!" she entreated. "Why, Narcissus believes it was to deliver them that we came!"
So the Commandant amiably charged himself to hand the parcel to M. Raoul, and waved his adieux with it as the chaise rolled away.
Of what had passed between Dorothea and Raoul at the surgery door Endymion knew nothing; but he had guessed at once, and now was assured by the tone in which she had spoken of the drawings, that the chapter was closed, the danger past. Coming, brother and sister had scarcely exchanged a word for miles together. Now they found themselves chatting without effort about the landscape, the horses' pace, the Commandant and his hospitality, the arrangements of the prison, and the prospects of a cosy dinner at Moreton Hampstead. It was all the smallest of small talk, and just what might be expected of two reputable middle-aged persons returning in a post-chaise from a mild jaunt; yet beneath it ran a current of feeling. In their different ways, each had been moved; each had relied upon the other for a degree of help which could not be asked in words, and had not been disappointed.
Now that Dorothea's infatuation had escaped all risk of public laughter, Endymion could find leisure to admire her courage in confessing, in persisting until the wrong was righted, and, now at the last, in shutting the door upon the whole episode.
And, now at the last, having shut the door upon it, Dorothea could reflect that her brother, too, had suffered. She knew his pride, his sensitiveness, his mortal dread of ridicule. In the smart of his wound he had turned and rent her cruelly, but had recovered himself and defended her loyally from worse rendings. She remembered, too, that he had distrusted Raoul from the first.
He had been right. But had she been wholly wrong?
In the dusk of the fifth evening after their departure the chaise rolled briskly in through Bayfield great gates and up the snowy drive. Almost noiselessly though it came, Mudge had the door thrown wide and stood ready to welcome them, with Narcissus behind in the comfortable glow of the hall.
Dorothea's limbs were stiff, and on alighting she steadied herself for a moment by the chaise-door before stepping in to kiss her brother. In that moment her eyes took one backward glance across the park and rested on the lights of Axcester glimmering between the naked elms.
"Well," demanded Narcissus, after exchange of greetings, "and what did he say about the drawings?"
Dorothea had not expected the question in this form, and parried it with a laugh:
"You and your drawings! I declare"--she turned to Endymion--"he has been thinking of them all the time, and affects no concern in our adventures!"
"Which, nevertheless, have been romantic to the last degree," he added, playing up to her.
"My dear Dorothea--" Narcissus expostulated.
"But you are not going to evade me by any such tricks," she interrupted, sternly; "for that is what it comes to. I left you with the strictest orders to take care of yourself, and you ought to know that I shall answer nothing until you have been catechised. What have you been eating?"
"My dear Dorothea!"
Narcissus gazed helplessly at Mudge; but Mudge had been seized with a flurry of his own, and misinterpreted the look as well as the stern question.
"I--I reckon 'tis me, Miss," he confessed. "Being partial to onions, and taking that liberty in Mr. Endymion's absence, knowing his dislike of the effluvium--"
Such are the pitfalls of a guilty conscience on the one hand, and, on the other, of being unexpectedly clever.
An hour later, at dinner, Narcissus was informed that the drawings had been conveyed to M. Raoul, who, doubtless, would return them with hints for correction.
"But had he nothing to say at the time?"
"For my part," said Endymion, sipping his wine, "I addressed but one sentence to him; and Dorothea, I daresay, exchanged but half a dozen. Considering the shortness of the interview, and that our mission--at least, our ostensible mission"--Endymion glanced at Dorothea, with a smile at his own finesse--"was to carry him news of his release, you will admit--"
"Oh--ah!--to be sure; I had forgotten the release," muttered Narcissus, and was resigned.
"By the way," Dorothea asked, after a short pause, "what is happening at 'The Dogs' tonight? All the windows are lit up in the Orange Room. I saw it as I stepped out of the chaise."
"Yes; I have to tell you"--Narcissus turned towards his brother-- "that during your absence another of the prisoners has found his discharge--the old Admiral."
"He died this morning: but you knew, of course, it was only a question of days. Rochambeau was with him at the last. He has shown great devotion."
"You have made all arrangements, of course?" For Narcissus was Acting Commissary in his brother's absence.
"I rode in at once on hearing the news, which Zeally brought before daylight; and found the Lodge"--this was a Masonic Lodge formed among the prisoners, and named by them La Paix Desiree--"anxious to pay him something more than the full rites. With my leave they have hired the Orange Room, and turned it into a chapelle ardente; and there, I believe, he is reposing now, poor old fellow."
"He has no kith nor kin, I understand."
"None. He was never married, and his relatives went in the Terror-- the most of them (so Rochambeau tells me) in a single week."
Dorothea had heard the same story from the General and from Raoul. To this old warrior his Emperor had been friends, kindred, wife, and children--nay, almost God. He had enjoyed Napoleon's favour, and followed his star from the days of the Directory: in that favour and the future of France beneath that star his hopes had begun and ended. His private ambitions he had resigned without a word on the day when he put to sea out of Brest, under order from Paris, to perform a feat he knew to be impossible, with ships ill-found, under-manned, and half- victualled by cheating contractors: and he sailed cheerfully, believing himself sacrificed to some high purpose of his master's. When, the sacrifice made, he learned that the contractors slandered him to cover their own villainy, and that Napoleon either believed them or was indifferent, his heart broke. Too proud at first, he had ended by drawing up a statement and forwarding it from his captivity, with a demand for an enquiry. The answer to this was--the letter which never came.
Dorothea thought of the room where she had danced and been happy: the many lights, the pagan figures merrymaking on the panels, the goddess on the ceiling with her cupids and scattered roses, and, in the centre of it all, that dead face, incongruous and calm.
How small had been her tribulation beside his! And it was all over for him now--wages taken, account sealed up for judgment, parole ended, and no heir to trouble over him or his good name.
Next morning she rode into Axcester, as well to do some light shopping as because it seemed an age since her last visit, which, to be sure, was absurd, and she knew it. Happening to meet General Rochambeau, she drew rein and very gently offered her condolence on the loss of his old friend.
The General pressed her hand gratefully.
"Ah, never pity him, Mademoiselle. He carries a good pass for the Elysian Fields."
"And that is--?"
"The Emperor's tabatiere: and, my faith! Miss Dorothea, there will be sneezings in certain quarters when he opens it there.
"Il a du bon tabac Dans sa tabatiere
"has the Admiral. He had for you (if I may say it) a quite extraordinary respect and affection. The saints rest his brave soul!"
The General lifted his tricorne. He never understood the tide of red which surged over Dorothea's face; but she conquered it, and went on to surprise him further:
"I heard of this only last night. We have been visiting Dartmoor, my brother and I, with a release for--for that M. Raoul."
"So I understood." He noted that her confusion had gone as suddenly as it came.
"But since I am back in time, and it appears I was so fortunate as to win his regard, I would ask to see him--if it be permitted, and I may have your escort."
"Certainly, Mademoiselle. You will, perhaps, wish to consult your brother though?"
"I see no necessity," she answered.
* * * * * * * * *
The General was not the only one to discover a new and firmer note in Dorothea's voice. Life at Bayfield slipped back into its old comfortable groove, but the brothers fell--and one of them consciously--into a habit of including her in their conversations and even of asking her advice. One day there arrived a bulky parcel for Narcissus; so bulky indeed and so suspiciously heavy, that it bore signs of several agitated official inspections, and nothing short of official deference to Endymion (under cover of whom it was addressed) could account for its having come through at all. For it came from France. It contained a set of the Bayfield drawings exquisitely cut in stone; and within the cover was wrapped a lighter parcel addressed to Miss Dorothea Westcote--a rose-tree, with a packet of seeds tied about its root.
No letter accompanied the gift, at the sentimentality of which she found herself able to smile. But she soaked the root carefully in warm water, and smiled again at herself, as she planted it at the foot of the glacis beneath her boudoir window--the very spot where Raoul had fallen. Against expectation--for the journey had sorely withered it-- the plant throve. She lived to see it grown into a fine Provence rose, draping the whole south-east corner of Bayfield with its yellow bloom.
"After all," she said one afternoon, stepping back in the act of pruning it, "provided one sees things in their right light and is not a fool--"
But this was long after the time of which we are telling.
Folks no longer smile at sentiment. They laugh it down: by which, perhaps, no great harm would be done if their laughter came through the mind; but it comes through the passions, and at the best chastises one excess by another--a weakness by a rage, which is weakness at its worst. I fear Dorothea may be injured in the opinion of many by the truth--which, nevertheless, has to be told--that her recovery was helped not a little by sentiment. What? Is a poor lady's heart to be in combustion for a while and then--pf!--the flame expelled at a blast, with all that fed it? That is the heroic cure, no doubt: but either it kills or leaves a room swept and garnished, inviting devils. In short it is the way of tragedy, and for tragedy Dorothea had no aptitude at all. She did what she could--tidied up.
For an instance.--She owned a small book which had once belonged to a namesake of hers--a Dorothea Westcote who had lived at the close of the seventeenth and opening of the eighteenth centuries, a grand- daughter of the first Westcote of Bayfield, married (so said the family history) in 1704 to a squire from across the Devonshire border. The book was a slender one, bound in calf, gilt-edged, and stamped with a gold wreath in the centre of each cover. Dorothea called it an album; but the original owner had simply written in, "Dorothea Westcote, her book," on the first page, with the date 1687 below, and filled four-and- twenty of its blank pages with poetry (presumably her favourite pieces), copied in a highly ornate hand. Presumably also she had wearied of the work, let the book lie, and coming to it later, turned it upside down and started with a more useful purpose: for three pages at the end contained several household recipes in the same writing grown severer, including "Garland Wine (Mrs. Massiter's Way)" and "A good Cottage Pie for a Pore Person."
Now the family history left no doubt that in 1687 this Dorothy had been a bare fifteen years old; and although some of the entries must have been made later (for at least two of them had not been composed at the time), the bulk of the poems proved her a sprightly young lady whenever she transcribed them. Indeed, some were so very free in calling a spade a spade, that our Dorothea, having annexed the book, years ago, on the strength of her name, and dipped within, had closed it in sudden virgin terror and thrust it away at the back of her wardrobe.
There it had lain until disinterred in the hurried search for linen for Mr. Raoul's wound. Next morning Dorothea was on the point of hiding it again, when, as she opened the covers idly, her eyes fell on these lines
"But at my back I alwaies hear Time's winged chariot hurrying near; And yonder all before me lie Desarts of vast Eternitie . . ."
She read on. The poem, after all, turned out to be but a lover's appeal to his mistress to give over coyness and use time while she might; but Dorothea wondered why its solemn language should have hit her namesake's fancy, and, turning a few more pages, discovered that this merry dead girl had chosen and copied out other verses which were more than solemn. How had she dug these gloomy gems out of Donne, Ford, Webster, and set them here among loose songs and loose epigrams from Wit's Remembrancer and the like? for gems they were, though Dorothea did not know it nor whence they came. Dorothea had small sense of poetry: it was the personal interest which led her on. To be sure the little animal (she had already begun to construct a picture of her) might have secreted these things for no more reason than their beauty, as a squirrel will pick up a ruby ring and hide it among his nuts. But why were they, all so darkly terrible? Had she, being young, been afraid to die? Rather it seemed as if now and then, in the midst of her mirth, she had paused and been afraid to live.
And in the end she had married a Devonshire squire, which on the face of it is no darkly romantic thing to do. But it was over the maiden that our Dorothea pondered, until by and by the small shade took features and a place in her leisure time: a very companionable shade, though tantalising; and innocent, though given to mischievously sportive hints. Dorothea sometimes wondered what her own fate would have been, with this naughtiness in her young blood--and this seriousness.
It was sentiment, of course; but it is also a fact that this ghost of a kinswoman brought help to her. For such a hurt as hers the specific is to get away from self and look into such human thought as is kindly yet judicial. Some find this help in philosophy, many more in wise Dorothea had no philosophy, and no human being to consult; for admirably as Endymion had behaved, he remained a person with obvious limits. The General held aloof: she had no reason to fear that he suspected her secret. And so Natura inventrix, casting about for a cure, found and brought her this companion of her own sex from between the covers of a book.
I set down the fact merely and its share in Dorothea's recovery.