The Westcotes by Arthur Quiller-Couch
Chapter XII. General Rochambeau Tells a Story; and the Ting-Tang Rings for the Last Time
More than a year had passed when, one February morning, as he left the breakfast table, Endymion handed Dorothea a slip of paper.
"Do you think we can entertain at dinner next Wednesday? If you can manage it, I wish these invitations written out and despatched before noon."
"Next Wednesday?" Dorothea's eyebrows went up. Invitations to dine at Bayfield had always, as we know, been issued just three weeks ahead.
"If it will not inconvenience you," he answered; and his manner added, as plainly as words, "I beg that you will not press for my reasons." He was booted already for his ride into Axcester.
Dorothea ran her eye down the list: The Vicomte de Tocqueville, General Rochambeau. . . . All the prisoners of distinction were included as well as the chief notables of the neighbourhood, which made it a long one, even without a full balance of ladies.
She went off to her room at once and penned the letters--twenty-five in all.
Naturally, this break in the Bayfield custom set speculation going among the invited; but it is doubtful if Narcissus, any more than Dorothea, knew the reason of it. And on Wednesday, when the guests assembled, the only one who might be suspected of sharing Endymion's secret was (oddly enough) General Rochambeau. The old fellow seemed ten years younger, and wore an air of sportiveness, almost of raillery, as he caught his host's eye. The compliments he paid Lady Bateson across the table were prodigious, and gave that good soul a hazy sensation of being wafted back to the court of Louis XV, and behaving brilliantly under the circumstances.
"Really, my dear Mr. Westcote," she protested at length, being a chartered utterer of indiscretions which (as she delighted to prove) Endymion would not tolerate in others, but took from her and allowed, with a magisterial smile, to pass,--"really, I trust you have not taken off the General's parole, or to-morrow I shall have to lock my gates for fear of a chaise-and-pair."
"Ah, to-morrow!" the General echoed, turning to Endymion, with a twinkle of malice in his eye. "But when Mr. Westcote releases us, it will be en masse; and then, believe me, I shall come with an army, since I underrate neither the strength of the fortress nor the feeling of the country."
"That reminds me," put in a Mr. Saxby, of Yeovil, or near by, "we have heard of no escape or attempts at escape from Axcester this winter. I congratulate you, Westcote--if the General will not think it offensive."
"Reassure yourself, my dear sir." General Rochambeau bowed. "No," he continued, lifting his eyes for a moment towards Dorothea, "in one way or another we are rid of our fence-breakers, and the rest must share the credit with our Commissary."
"And yet the temptation--," began Lady Bateson.
"Is great, Madame, for some temperaments. But the Vicomte, here, and I have tried to teach our poor compatriots that in resisting it they fight for France as surely as if they stormed a breach. And, by the way, I heard a story this morning--if the company would care to hear--"
They begged him to tell it.
"But not if the ladies leave us to our wine." He turned to Dorothea. "If Miss Westcote will rally and stay her forces, good; for, though it came to me casually in a letter, it is a tale of the sort which used to be fashionable in my youth--ah! long before M. le Tocqueville remembers--and for the telling it demanded an audience of ladies, which must help me, who am rusty, to recapture the style, if I can."
He pushed back his chair and, crossing his legs, leaned forward and pushed his fingers across the polished mahogany till they touched the base of a wine-glass beside his plate. One or two of the guests smiled at this formal opening. The Vicomte's eyes showed something of amusement behind their apathy. But all listened.
"My tale, Miss Dorothea, is of a certain M. Benest, who until a few weeks ago was a prisoner on parole in one of your towns on the south coast. He had been chef de hune (which, as you know, is chief petty officer) of the Embuscade frigate, captured by Sir John Warren. In the action which lost her M. Benest lost a leg, and was placed in an English hospital, where they gave him a wooden one.
"Now how it came about that on his discharge he was allowed to live in a town--call it a village, rather--a haven, at any rate--where for a couple of napoleons he might have found a boat any night of the week to smuggle him over to Roscoff, is more than I can tell you. It may be that he had once borne another name than Benest, one to command privileges: since many of my countrymen, as you know, have found it prudent in recent years to change their names and take up with callings below their real rank. There, at any rate, he was; and on the day after his arrival, he and the Rector of the parish--who was also a magistrate--took a walk and marked out the bounds together: two miles along the coast to the east, two miles along the coast to the west, and two miles up the valley behind the town. At the end of these two miles the valley itself branched into two and climbed inland, the road branching likewise; and M. Benest's mark was the signpost at the angle.
"Well, at first he walked little, because of his wooden leg. He had lodgings with a widow in a white-washed cottage overlooking the harbour-side, and seemed happy enough there, tending a monster geranium which grew against the house-wall, or pottering about the quay and making friends with the children. For the children soon picked up an affection for him, seeing that he was never too busy to drop his gardening and come and be umpire at their games of 'tig' or 'prisoners' bars.' Also he had stories for them, and halfpennies or sweetmeats in mysterious pockets, and songs which he taught them: Girofle, girofla, and Compagnons de la Marjolaine, and Les Petits Bateaux--do you know it?--
"'Papa, les p'tits bateaux Qui vont sur I'eau, Ont-ils des jambes? --Mais oui, petit beta, S'ils n'en avaient pas, ils n' march'raient pas!'
"In short, M. Benest, with his loose blue coat and three-cornered naval cap, endeared himself to the children, and through the children to everyone.
"It was some time before he began to take walks; and I believe he had been living in the town for six months, when one day, having stumped up the valley road for a change, and just as he was facing about for the return journey, he heard a voice in his own language singing to the air of Vive Henri Quatre.
"The voice was shaky and, I dare say, uncertain in its upper notes; but it fetched M. Benest right-about-face again. He perceived that it came from the garden of a solitary cottage up the road, a gunshot and more beyond his signpost. But a tall hedge interrupted his view, and, though he stared long and earnestly, all he could see that day was a pea-stick nodding above it.
"He came again, however,--not the next day, but the day after,--and was rewarded by a glimpse of a white cap with bows which seemed at that distance of a purplish colour. Its wearer was standing in the gateway and exchanging a word with the Rector, who had reined up his horse in the road.
"M. Benest walked home and made inquiries; but his landlady could only tell him that the cottage was rented by two ladies, sisters,--she had heard that they came from the West Indies,--who saw nobody, but wished only to be let alone. One of them, who suffered from an incurable complaint, was never seen; the other could be seen on fine days in her garden, where she worked vigorously; and what the pair lived on was a mystery, for they bought nothing in the town or of their neighbours.
"On learning this, M. Benest became very cunning indeed. He bought a fishing rod.
"For I ought to have told you that a stream ran down the valley beside the road, and it contained trout--perhaps as many as a dozen. M. Benest had no desire to catch them; but, you see, he was forced to acquire some show of expertness in order to deceive the wayfarers who paused and watched him; and in time (I am told) the fish, after being unhooked once or twice and restored apologetically to the water, came to enjoy disconcerting him. You must understand that he had no foolish illusions concerning the white cap and purplish ribbons--the Mademoiselle Henriette, as he discovered she was called. He only knew that here were two women, his compatriots, poor certainly, often hungry perhaps, shipwrecked so close to him upon this corner of (pardon me, Miss Dorothea) an unfriendly land, yet divided from any comfort he could bring by fifty yards of road and his word of honour. She must be of the true blood of France who quavered out Vive Henri Quatre so resolutely over her digging and hoeing: but the sound of a French voice might hearten her as hers had heartened him. Therefore he sang lustily while he angled--which is not good for sport; and when he caught a fish, broke into paeans addressed less to the captive--with which, between you and me, he was secretly annoyed--than to an ear unseen, perhaps a quarter of a mile away.
"But there came a day--how shall I tell it?--when calamity fell upon the cottage. For some time the farmers up the valley had been missing sheep. What so easy now as to suspect the two women who were never known to buy either bread or butcher's meat? You can guess! A rabble marched up from the town and broke in upon them. It found nothing, of course; and I am told that at sight of the face of the poor elder sister it fled back in panic, leaving the place a wreck.
"It so happened that M. Benest had pretermitted his angling, that afternoon, for a stroll along the cliff: but he heard the news on his return, from his landlady, while he sat at tea--that is to say, he heard a part of it, for before the story was out he had set down his teacup, caught up hat and stick, and stumped out of the house. The most of the townspeople were indoors at tea, discussing the sensation; the few he encountered had no greeting from him. He looked neither to the right nor to the left; had no ears for his friends, the trout, as they rose at the evening flies. He reached the signpost and--walked past it! He stumped straight up to the garden gate, which stood ajar, and pushed it wide with his stick.
"There were signs of trampling on the flower-beds; but--for it was July--the whole garden blazed with hollyhocks, oeillets, sweet Williams, sweet peas, above all with that yellow flower--mimulus, monkey flower, is it not?--which grows so profusely in gardens beside streams. The air was weighted with scent of the reseda and of the jasmine which climbed the wall and almost choked the roses.
"The cottage door stood ajar also. He thrust this open too, and for the first time stood face to face with Mademoiselle Henriette.
"She sat by the kitchen table, with one arm flung across it, and her body bowed with grief. At her feet lay a trodden bunch of the monkey flowers: and at the tap-tap of his wooden leg on the threshold she sprang up and faced him, across the yellow blossoms.
"'Mademoiselle,' he began, 'I have just learnt--but it is an infamy! Permettez--I am French, I also, though you do not know me perhaps.'
"And with that M. Benest stammered and came to a halt, for her eyes were worse than woeful. They were accusing--yes, accusing him. Of what? Nom de tonnerre, what had he done?
"'You, Monsieur! You--an officer of France!'
"'Mais quel rapport y a-t-il?'
"'Your parole, Monsieur!'
"'Peste! I forgot,' said M. Benest, half to himself.
"'Forgot? Forgot your parole? Mais ecoutez donc! Nous savons souffrir, nous autres franfaises . . . Et la petite qui meurt--et--et moi qui mourrai Presqu' a l'heure--mais nous nous en tenons a' ne pas dishonorer la Patrie a la fin. Ca finira bien, sous-officier--allez- vous--allez-vous en. Mais allez!'
"She stamped her foot upon the flowers, and M. Benest turned and fled from her. Nay, in his haste, taking a short-cut towards the signpost, he plunged his wooden leg deep in the marsh, and tumbled helpless, overwhelmed with shame.
"He never passed the signpost again, nor caught another glimpse of Mademoiselle Henriette's cap. Three days later the Rector broke into the cottage and discovered her seated, dead and stiff, her hands stained with digging her sister's grave.
"And the cottage had no new tenant. Only M. Benest continued to eye it wistfully, as he cast his flies and pondered on his offence, which she had died without forgiving.
"But one July, two years after her death, a patch of gold appeared on the marsh below the hedge--a patch of the monkey-flower. Some seeds had been blown thither, or carried down by the stream.
"Next July the patch had doubled its length.
"'The flowers are travelling towards me,' said M. Benest.
"And year by year the stream brought them nearer. That was a terrible July for him when they came within two feet of the signpost; but he would not stretch a hand beyond it.
"'She coquets with her forgiveness, the poor Mademoiselle Henriette. But I can wait: 'faut pas deshonorer la patrie a la fin!'
"Before the next July he had made sure of one plant at least on his side of the signpost; and fished beside it day after day, fearful lest some animal should browse upon it. But when the happy morning came for it to open, and M. Benest knelt beside his prize, he drew back a hand.
"'Is it quite open?' he asked. 'Better wait, since all is safe, for the sun to warm it a little longer.'
"And he waited, until a trout, to remind him, perhaps, took a fly with a splash beneath his nose. Then, with a start, M. Benest's fingers closed and snapped off the yellow blossom.
"'She has forgiven me,' said he. Now I can forgive myself.'"
For a moment or two, though his story was ended, the General continued to toy with the stem of his wine glass. One or two of the guests cried "Bravo!" But Lady Bateson's eyes were wet, and Dorothea gazed hard for a while into the polished surface of the mahogany before she recalled herself, and, with a nod, swept the ladies away to the drawing-room.
Later, in a pause between two songs, the General dropped into a seat beside her.
"Can you guess who sent me that story?" he asked. "It was M. Raoul; and he travelled across from Plymouth in the ship with this M. Benest, who happened to get his exchange at about the same time. It was clever of him to worm out the story--if, indeed, he did not invent it. But that young man has genius for pathos."
"I did not know that you corresponded."
"Indeed, nor did I. He chose to write. I may answer; and, again, I may not. To tell you the truth, I have never been sure if we condemned him quite justly."
Dorothea found herself able to look straight into the kindly old eyes.
"It was a beautiful story. Did you tell it for me?"
"Yes, Mademoiselle, in thanks and in contrition. We are all prisoners in this world; but while it is certain you have made fortitude easier for us, I have suspected that there was a time when I, for one, might have been bolder and repaid you, but stood aside. Also, I think you no longer require help."
"No longer, General. But what you say is true: we are all prisoners here, or sentries at the best." And Dorothea, resting her fan on her lap, let these lines fall from her, not consciously quoting, but musing on each word as it fell:
"Brutus and Cato might discharge their souls, And give them furloughs for another world; But we, like sentries, are obliged to stand In starless nights, and wait the appointed hour."
The General stared.
"Ah, Mademoiselle, what poet taught you that?"
"It was a kinswoman," she answered, and caught herself blushing. "I do not know the author."
* * * * * * * * *
The secret of the Commissary's dinner-party came out early next morning, when the call came for the prisoners to leave Axcester. And, whenever Dorothea looked back on this epoch in her life, what she found most wonderful was the suddenness of its end. As day broke in a drizzle, and before she was well awake, a troop of dragoons, followed by a company of the 52nd Regiment of foot, passed the Bayfield gates on the way to Axcester. The troopers entered the town while the Ting-tang was sounding, and before the roll could be called the prisoners were surrounded. Their release had come; and though many had sighed for it for years, it found them quite unprepared.
Their release had come; but first they must be marched through the length of the country to Kelso, there to await the formalities of exchange. At four in the afternoon the infantry marched out with the first great batch. Early next morning the rest--owners of furniture, granted a few hours to arrange for its storage or sale--followed their comrades. There was no cloud of dust upon the road for Dorothea to watch. They departed in sheets of rain and under the dusk of dawn. She never again saw General Rochambeau.
It is recorded that in his fifty-seventh year Endymion Westcote married (but the bride was not Lady Bateson), and that children were born to him. Narcissus lived on at Bayfield and compiled at his leisure a History of Axcester, which mentions the decoration of the Orange Room by "a young Frenchman of talent, who has been good enough to assist the author in a most important work." But Dorothea preferred her independence and a cottage not far from the bridge, where Endymion's children might romp as they listed, but never seemed to disturb its exquisite order.