The Westcotes by Arthur Quiller-Couch
Chapter II. The Orange Room
Some weeks later, on a bright and frosty morning in December, Dorothea rode into Axcester with her brothers. She was a good horsewoman and showed to advantage on horseback, when her slight figure took a grace of movement which made amends for her face. To-day the brisk air and a canter across the bridge at the foot of the hill had brought roses to her cheeks, and she looked almost pretty. General Rochambeau happened to pass down the street as the three drew rein before the Town House (so the Westcotes always called the Bank-office), and, pausing to help her dismount, paid her a very handsome compliment.
Dorothea knew, of course, that Frenchmen were lavish of compliments, and had heard General Rochambeau pay them where she felt sure they were not deserved. Nevertheless she found this one pleasant--she had received so few--and laughed happily. It may have come from the freshness of the morning, but to-day her spirit sat light within her and expectant she could not say of what, yet it seemed that something good was going to happen.
"I have a guess," said the old General, "that Miss Westcote and I are bound on the same errand. Her's cannot be to inspect dull bonds and ledgers, bills of exchange or rates of interest."
He jerked his head towards the house, and Dorothea shook hers.
"I am going to 'The Dogs,' General."
"Eh?" He scented the jest and chuckled. "As you say, 'to the dogs' hein? Messieurs, I beg you to observe and take warning that your sister and I are going to the dogs together."
He offered his arm to Dorothea. Her brothers had dismounted and handed their horses over to the ostler who waited by the porch daily to lead them to the inn stables.
"I will stable Mercury myself," said she, addressing Endymion. She submitted her smallest plans to him for approval.
"Do so," he answered. "After running through my letters, I will step down to the Orange Room and join you. I entrust her to you, General-- the more confidently because you cannot take her far."
He laughed and followed Narcissus through the porch. Dorothea saw the old General wince. She slipped an arm through Mercury's bridle-rein and picked up her skirt; the other arm she laid in her companion's.
"You have not seen the Orange Room, Miss Dorothea?"
"Not since the decorations began." She paused and uttered the thought uppermost in her mind. "You must forgive my brother; I am sorry he spoke as he did just now."
"Then he is more than forgiven."
"He did not consider."
"Dear Mademoiselle, your brother is an excellent fellow, and not a bit more popular than he deserves to be. Of his kindness to us prisoners-- I speak not of us privileged ones, but of our poorer brothers--I could name a thousand acts; and acts say more than words."
Dorothea pursed her lips. "I am not sure. I think a woman would ask for words too."
"Yes, that is so," he caught her up. "But don't you see that we prisoners are--forgive me--just like women? I mean, we have learned that we are weak. For a man that is no easy lesson, Mademoiselle. I myself learned it hardly. And seeing your brother admired by all, so strong and prosperous and confident, can I ask that he should feel as we who have forfeited these things?"
Before she could find a reply he had harked back to the Orange Room.
"You have not seen it since the decorations began? Then I have a mind to run and ask your brother to forbid your coming--to command you to wait until Wednesday. We are in a horrible mess, I warn you, and smell of turpentine most potently. But we shall be ready for the ball, and then--! It will be prodigious. You do not know that we have a genius at work on the painting?"
"My brother tells me the designs are extraordinarily clever."
"They are more than clever, you will allow. The artist I discovered myself--a young man named Charles Raoul. He comes from the South, a little below Avignon, and of good family--in some respects." The General paused and took snuff. "He enlisted at eighteen and has seen service; he tells me he was wounded at Austerlitz. Unhappily he was shipped, about two years ago, on board the Thetis frigate, with a detachment and stores for Martinique. The Thetis had scarcely left L'Orient before she fell in with one of your frigates, whose name escapes me; and here he is in Axcester. He has rich relatives, but for some reason or other they decline to support him; and yet he seems a gentleman. He picks up a few shillings by painting portraits; but you English are shy of sitting--I wonder why? And we--well, I suppose we prefer to wait till our faces grow happier."
Dorothea had it on the tip of her tongue to ask how the General had discovered this genius; but the ring in his voice gave her pause. Twice in the course of their short walk he had shown feeling; and she wondered at it, having hitherto regarded him as a cynical old fellow with a wit which cracked himself and the world like two dry nuts for the jest of their shrivelled kernels. She did not, know that a kind word of hers had unlocked his heart; and before she could recall her question they had reached the stable-yard of "The Dogs." And after stabling Mercury it was but a step across to the inn.
The "Dogs Inn" took its name from two stone greyhounds beside its porch-- supporters of the arms of that old family from which the Westcotes had purchased Bayfield; and the Orange Room from a tradition that William of Orange had spent a night there on his march from Torbay. There may have been truth in the tradition; the room at any rate preserved in it window-hangings of orange-yellow, and a deep fringe of the same hue festooning the musicians' gallery. While serving Axcester for ball, rout, and general assembly-room, it had been admittedly dismal--its slate-coloured walls scarred and patched with new plaster, and relieved only by a gigantic painting of the Royal Arms on panel in a blackened frame; its ceiling garnished with four pendants in plaster, like bride- cake ornaments inverted.
To-day, as she stepped across the threshold, Dorothea hesitated between stopping her ears and rubbing her eyes. The place was a Babel. Frenchmen in white paper caps and stained linen blouses were laughing, plying their brushes, mixing paints, shifting ladders, and jabbering all the while at the pitch of their voices. For a moment the din bewildered her; the ferment had no more meaning, no more method, than a schoolboy's game. But her eyes, passing over the chaos of paint-pots, brushes, and step-ladders, told her the place had been transformed. The ceiling between the four pendants had become a blue heaven with filmy clouds, and Cupids scattering roses before a train of doves and a recumbent goddess, whom a little Italian, perched on a scaffolding and whistling shrilly, was varnishing for dear life. Around the walls-- sky-blue also--trellises of vines and pink roses clambered around the old panels. The energy of the workmen had passed into their paintings, or perhaps Dorothea's head swam; at any rate, the cupids and doves seemed to be whirling across the ceiling, the vines, and roses mounting towards it, and pushing out shoots and tendrils while they climbed.
But the panels themselves! They were nine in all: three down the long black wall, two narrower ones at the far end, four between the orange- curtained windows looking on the street. (The fourth wall had no panel, being covered, by the musicians' gallery and the pillars supporting it.) In each, framed by the vines and roses, glowed a scene of classical or pseudo-classical splendour; golden sunsets, pale yellow skies, landscapes cleverly imitated from recollections of Claude Lorraine, dotted with temples and small figures in flowing drapery, with here and there a glimpse of naked limbs. Here were Bacchus and Ariadne, with a company of dancing revellers; Apollo and Marsyas; the Rape of Helen; Dido welcoming Aeneas. . . . Dorothea (albeit she had often glanced into the copy of M. Lempriere's Classical Dictionary in her brother's library, and, besides, had picked up something of Greek and Roman mythology in helping Narcissus) did not at once discriminate the subjects of these panels, but her eyes rested on them with a pleasant sense of recognition, and were still resting on them when she heard General Rochambeau say:
"Ah, there is my genius! You must let me present him, Mademoiselle. He will amuse you. Hi, there! Raoul!"
A young man, standing amid a group of workmen and criticising one of the panels between the curtains, turned sharply. Almost before Dorothea was aware, he had doffed his paper cap and the General was introducing him.
She recognised him at once. He was the young prisoner who had nailed the board against her brother's apple-tree.
He bowed and began at once to apologise for the state of the room. He had expected no visitors before Wednesday. The General had played a surprise upon him. And Miss Westcote, alas! was a critic, especially of classical subjects.
He had heard of her drawings for her brother's book.
"Indeed I am no artist. Please do not talk of those drawings. If you only knew how much I am ashamed of them. And besides, they were meant as diagrams to help the reader, not as illustrations. But these are beautiful."
He turned with a pleasant laugh. She had already taken note of his voice, but his laugh was even more musical.
"Daphne pursued by Apollo," he commenced, waving his hand towards the panel in face of her. "Be pleased to observe the lady sinking into the bush; an effect which the ingenious painter has stolen from no less a masterpiece than the Buisson Ardent' of Nicholas Froment."
The General fumbled for the ribbon of his gold eye-glass. M. Raoul moved towards the next panel, and Dorothea followed him.
"Perseus entering the Garden of the Hesperides."
The painting, though slapdash, was astonishingly clever; and in this, as in other panels, no trace of the artist's hurry appeared in the reposeful design. Coiled about the foot of the tree, the dragon Ladon blinked an eye lazily at three maidens pacing hand in hand in the dance, over-hung with dark boughs and golden fruit. Behind them Perseus, with naked sword, halted in admiration, half issuing from a thicket over which stretched a distant bright line of sea and white cliff.
"You like it?" he asked. "But it is not quite finished yet, and Mademoiselle, if she is frank, will say that it wants something."
His voice held a challenge.
"I am sure, sir, I could not guess, even if I possessed--"
"A board, for example?"
She was completely puzzled.
He glanced at her sideways, turned to the panel, and with his forefingers traced the outline of a square upon it, against the tree.
"Restaurant pour les Aspirants," he announced.
He said it quietly, over his shoulder. The sudden challenge, her sudden discovery that he knew, made Dorothea gasp. She had not the smallest notion how to answer him, or even what kind of answer he expected, and stood dumb, gazing at his back. A workman, passing, apologised for having brushed her skirt with the step-ladder he carried. She stammered some words of pardon. And just then, to her relief, her brother Endymion's voice rang out from the doorway:
"Ah, there you are. Well, I declare!" He looked around him. "A Paradise, a perfect Paradise! Indeed, General, your nation has its revenge of us in the arts. You build a temple for us, and on Wednesday I hear you are to provide the music. Tum-tum, ta-ta-ta . . ." He hummed a few bars of Gluck's "Paride ed Elenna," and paused, with the gesture of one holding a fiddle, on the verge of a reminiscence. "There was a time--but I no longer compete. And to whom, General, are we indebted for this--ah--treat?"
General Rochambeau indicated young Raoul, who stepped forward from the wall and answered, with a respectful inclination:
"Well, M. le Commissaire, in the first place to Captain Seymour."
The General bit his moustache; Endymion frowned. The answer merely puzzled Dorothea, who did not know that Seymour was the name of the British officer to whom the Thetis had struck her colours.
"Moreover," the young man went on imperturbably, "we but repay our debt to M. le Commissaire--for the entertainment he affords us."
Dorothea looked up sharply now, even anxiously; but her brother took the shot, if shot it were, for a compliment. He put the awkward idiom aside with a gracious wave of the hand. His brow cleared.
"But we must do something for these poor fellows," he announced,-- sweeping all the work-men in a gaze; "in mere gratitude we must. A stall, now, at the end of the room under the gallery, with one or two salesmen whom you must recommend to me, General. We might dispose of quite a number of their small carvings and articles de Paris, with which the market among the townspeople is decidedly overstocked. The company on Wednesday will be less familiar with them: they will serve as mementoes, and the prices, I daresay, will not be too closely considered."
"Sir, I beg of you--" General Rochambeau expostulated.
"They have given their labour--such as it is--in pure gratitude for the kindness shown to them by all in Axcester. That has been the whole meaning of our small enterprise," the old gentleman persisted.
"Still, I don't suppose they'll object if it brings a little beef to their ragouts. Say no more, say no more. What have we here? Eh? 'Bacchus and Ariadne'? I am rusty in my classics, but Bacchus, Dorothea! This will please Narcissus. We have in our house, sir,"-- here he addressed Raoul,--"a Roman pavement entirely--ah--concerned with that personage. It is, I believe, unique. One of these days I must give you a permit to visit Bayfield and inspect it, with my brother for cicerone. It will repay you--"
"It will more than repay me," the young man interposed, with his gaze demurely bent on the wall.
"I should have said, it will repay your inspection. You must jog my memory."
It was clear Raoul had a reply on his tongue. But he glanced at Dorothea, read her expression, and, turning to her brother, bowed again. Her first feeling was of gratitude. A moment later she blamed herself for having asked his forbearance by a look, and him for his confidence in seeking that look. His eyes, during the moment they encountered hers, had said, "We under-stand one another." He had no right to assume so much, and yet she had not denied it.
Endymion Westcote meanwhile had picked up a small book which lay face downward on one of the step-ladders.
"So here is the source of your inspiration? said he. An Ovid? How it brings up old school-days At Winchester--old swishings, too, General, hey?" He held the book open and studied the Ariadne on the wall.
"The source of my inspiration indeed, M. le Commissaire! But you will not find Ariadne in that text, which contains only the Tristia."
"Ah, but, I told you my classics were a bit rusty," replied the Commissary. He made the round of the walls and commended, in his breezy way, each separate panel. "You must take my criticisms for what they are worth, M. Raoul. But my grandmother was a Frenchwoman, and that gives me a kind of--sympathy, shall we say? Moreover, I know what I like."
Dorothea, accustomed to regard her brother as a demigod, caught herself blushing for him. She was angry with herself. She caught M. Raoul's murmur, "Heaven distributes to us our talents, Monsieur," and was angry with him, understanding and deprecating the raillery beneath his perfectly correct attitude. He kept this attitude to the end. When the time came for parting, he bent over her hand and whispered again:
"But it was kind of Mademoiselle not to report me."
She heard. It set up a secret understanding between them, which she resented. There was nothing to say, again; yet she had found no way of rebuking him, she was angry with herself all the way home.