The Westcotes by Arthur Quiller-Couch
Chapter IV. Encounter Between a High Horse and a Hobby
"Your chocolate will be getting cold, Miss."
Dorothea, refreshed with sleep but still pleasantly tired, lay in bed watching Polly as she relaid and lit the fire in the massive Georgian grate. These occasions found the service in the Town House short- handed, and the girl (a cheerful body, with no airs) turned to and took her share in the extra work.
"Have they sent for Mudge?" (Mudge was the Bayfield butler.)
"Lord, no, Miss! Small chance of getting to Mudge, or of Mudge getting to us. Why, the snow is half-way up the front door!"
Bed was deliciously warm, and the air in the room nipping, as Dorothea found when she stretched out her hand for the cup.
"I always like waking in this room. It gives one a sort of betwixt and between feeling--between being at home and on a visit. To be snowed-up makes it quite an adventure."
"Pretty adventure for the gentry at 'The Dogs'! Tom Ryder, the dairyman there, managed to struggle across just now with the milk, and he says that a score of them couldn't get beds in the town for love or money. The rest kept it up till four in the morning, and now they're sleeping in their fine dresses round the fire in the Orange Room."
Dorothea laughed. "They were caught like this just eighteen years ago-- let me see--yes, just eighteen. I remember, because it was my second ball. But then there were no prisoners filling up the lodgings, so everyone found a room."
"Some of the French gentlemen gave up their lodgings last night, and are down at 'The Dogs' now keeping themselves warm. There's that old Admiral, for one. I'm sure he never ought to be out of bed, with his rheumatics. It's enough to give him his death. Sam Zeally says that General Rochambeau is looking after him, as tender as a mother with a babby."
Polly mimicked Sam's pronunciation, and laughed. She was Somerset-born herself, but had seen service in Bath.
"Where is Mr. Endymion?"
"I heard him let himself in just as I was going upstairs after undressing you. That would be about one, or a quarter past. But he was up again at six, called for Mrs. Morrish to heat his shaving water, and had a cup of coffee in his room. He and Mr. Narcissus have gone out to see the roll called, and get the volunteers and prisoners to clear the streets. Leastways, that's what Mr. Narcissus is doing. I heard Mr. Endymion say something about riding off to see what the roads are like."
By this time the fire was lit and crackling. Polly loitered awhile, arranging the cinders. She had given up asking with whom her mistress had danced; but Dorothea usually described the more striking gowns, and how this or that lady had worn her hair.
"Well, yes, Polly; a little, but not uncomfortably. I danced several times last night."
Polly pursed her mouth into an O; but her face was turned to the fire, and Dorothea did not see it.
"I hope, Miss, you'll tell me about it later on. But Mrs. Morrish is downstairs declaring that no hen will lay an egg in this weather, to have it snowed up the next moment. 'Not that I blame mun,' she says, 'for I wouldn't do it myself,'"--here Polly giggled. "What to find for breakfast she don't know, and never will until I go and help her."
Polly departed, leaving her mistress cosy in bed and strangely reluctant to rise and part company with her waking thoughts.
Yes; Dorothea had danced twice again with M. Raoul since her discovery of his boldness. He had seen her draw the orange curtain over his offence, had sought her again and apologised for, it. He had done it (he had pleaded) on a sudden impulse--to be a reminder of one kind glance which had brightened his exile. 'No one but she was in the least likely to recognise the trinket; in any case he would paint it out at the first opportunity. And Dorothea had forgiven him. She herself had a great capacity for gratitude, and understood the feeling far too thoroughly to believe for an instant that M. Raoul could be mightily grateful for anything she had said or done. No; whatever the feeling which impels a young gentleman to secrete some little private reminder of its object, it is not gratitude; and Dorothea rejoiced inwardly that it was not. But what then was it? Some attraction of sympathy, no doubt. To find herself attractive in any way was a new experience and delightful. She had forgiven him on the spot. And afterwards they had danced twice together, and he had praised her dancing. Also, he had said something about a pretty foot--but Frenchmen must always be complimenting.
A noise in the street interrupted her thoughts, and reminded her that she must not be dawdling longer in bed. She shut her teeth, made a leap for it, and, running to the window, peered over the blind. Some score of the prisoners in a gang were clearing the pavement with shovels and brushes, laughing and chattering all the while, and breaking off to pelt each other with snowballs. She had discussed these poor fellows with M. Raoul last night. Could she not in some way add to their comfort, or their pleasure? He had dwelt most upon their mental weariness, especially on Sundays. Of material discomfort they never complained, but they dreaded Sundays worse than they dreaded cold weather. Any small distraction now--.
The train of her recollections came to a sudden halt, before a tall cheval-glass standing at an obtuse angle to the fireplace and on the edge of its broad hearthrug. She had been moving aimlessly from the window to the wardrobe in which Polly had folded and laid away her last night's finery, and from the wardrobe back to a long sofa at the bed's foot. And now she found herself standing before the glass and holding her nightgown high enough to display a foot and ankle on which she had slipped an ash-coloured stocking and shoe. A tide of red flooded her neck and face.
* * * * * * * * *
Mrs. Morrish had laid the meal in the ground-floor room, once a library, but now used as a bank-parlour--yet still preserving the d ignified aspect of a private room: for banking (as the Westcote clients were reminded by several sporting prints and a bust of the Medicean Venus) was in those days of scarce money a branch of philanthropy rather than of trade. The good caretaker was in tears over the breakfast. "And I'm sure, Miss, I don't know what's to be done unless you can eat bacon."
"Which I can," Dorothea assured her.
"Well, Miss, I am sure I envy you; for ever since that poor French Captain Fioupi hanged himself from Mary Odling's bacon-rack, two years ago the first of this very next month, I haven't been able to look at a bit."
"Poor gentleman! Why did he do it?"
"The Lord knows, Miss. But they said it was home-sickness."
From the street came the voices of Captain Fioupi's compatriots, merry at their work. Dorothea had scarcely begun breakfast before her brothers entered, and she had to pour out tea for them. Narcissus took his seat at once. Endymion stood stamping his feet and warming his hands by the fire. He bent and with his finger flicked out a crust of snow from between his breeches and the tops of his riding-boots. It fell on the hearthstone and sputtered.
"The roads," he announced, are not very bad beyond the bridge. That is the worst spot, and I have sent down a gang to clear it. Our guests ought to be able to depart before noon, though I won't answer for the road Yeovil Way. One carrier--Allworthy--has come through to the bridge, but says he passed Solomon's van in a drift about four miles back, this side of the Cheriton oak. He reports Bayfield Hill safe enough; but that I discovered for myself."
"It seems quite a treat for them," Dorothea remarked.
His eyebrows went up.
"The guests, do you mean?"
He turned to the fire and picked up the tongs.
"No, I mean the prisoners; I was listening to their voices. Just now they were throwing snowballs."
Endymion dropped the tongs with a clatter; picked them up, set them in place, and faced the room again with a flush which might have come from stooping over the fire.
"Come to breakfast, dear," said Dorothea, busy with the tea-urn. "I have a small plan I want your permission for, and your help. It is about the prisoners. General Rochambeau and M. Raoul--"
"Are doubtless prepared to teach me my business," snapped Endymion, who seemed in bad humour this morning.
"No--but listen, dear! They praise you warmly. For whom but my brother would these poor men have worked as they did upon the Orange Room-- and all to show their gratitude? But it appears the worst part of captivity is its tedium and the way it depresses the mind; one sees that it must be. They dread Sundays most of all. And I said I would speak to you, and if any way could be found--"
"My dear Dorothea," Endymion slipped his hands beneath his coat-tails and stood astraddle, "I have not often to request you, to mind your own affairs; but really when it comes to making a promise in my name--"
"Not a promise."
"May I ask you if you seriously propose to familiarise Axcester with all the orgies of a Continental Sabbath? Already the prisoners spend Sunday in playing chess, draughts, cards, dominoes; practices which I connive at, only insisting that they are kept out of sight, but from which I endeavour to wean them--those at least who have a taste for music--by encouraging them to, take part in our Church services."
"But I have heard you regret, dear, that only the least respectable fall in with this. The rest, being strict Roman Catholics, think it wrong."
"Are you quite sure last night did, not over-tire you? You are certainly disposed to be argumentative this morning."
"I think," suggested Narcissus, buttering his toast carefully, "you might at least hear what Dorothea has to say."
"Oh, certainly! Indeed, if she has been committing me to her projects, I have a right to know the worst."
"I haven't committed you--I only said I would ask your advice," poor Dorothea stammered. "And I have no project." She caught Narcissus' eye, and went on a little more firmly: "Only I thought, perhaps, that if you extended their walks a little on Sundays--they are scrupulous in keeping their parole. And, once in a way, we might entertain them at Bayfield--late in the afternoon, when you have finished your Sunday nap. Narcissus might show them the pavement and tell them about Vespasian--not a regular lecture, it being Sunday, but an informal talk, with tea afterwards. And in the evening, perhaps, they might meet in the Orange Room for some sacred music--it need not be called a 'concert'--" Dorothea stopped short, amazed at her own inventiveness.
"H'm. I envy your simplicity, my dear soul, in believing that the-- ah--alleged ennui of these men can he cured by a talk about Vespasian. But when you go on to talk of sacred music, I must be permitted to remind you that a concert is none the less a concert for being called by another name. We Britons do not usually allow names to disguise facts. A concert--call it even a 'sacred' concert--in the Orange Room, amid those distinctly--ah--pagan adornments! I can scarcely even term it the thin end of the wedge, so clearly can I see it paving the way for other questionable indulgences. I don't doubt your good intentions, Dorothea, but you cannot, as a woman, be expected to understand how easily the best intentions may convert Axcester, with its French community, into a veritable hot-bed of vice. And, by-the-by, you might tell Morrish I shall want the horse again in half-an-hour's time."
Dorothea left the room on her errand. As she closed the door Narcissus looked up from his toast.
"Hot-bed of fiddlesticks!" said he.
"I--ah--beg your pardon?"
Endymion, in the act of seating himself at table, paused to stare.
"Hot-bed of fiddlesticks!" repeated Narcissus. "You needn't have snapped Dorothea's head off. I thought her suggestions extremely sensible."
"The concert, for instance?"
"Yes! you don't make sacred music irreverent by calling it a concert. Moreover, I really don't see why, as intelligent men, they should not find Vespasian interesting. His career in many respects resembled the Corsican's."
Endymion smiled at his plate.
"Well, well, we will talk about it later on," said he.
He never quarrelled with Narcissus, whose foibles amused him, but for whose slow judgment he had a more than brotherly respect.
* * * * * * * * *
The Westcotes, though (at due intervals and with due notice given) they entertained as handsomely as the Lord Lieutenant himself, were not a household to be bounced (so to speak) into promiscuous or extemporised hospitality. For an ordinary dinner-party, Dorothea would pen the invitations three weeks ahead, Endymion devote an hour to selecting his guests, and Narcissus spend a morning in the Bayfield cellar, which he supervised and in which he took a just pride. And so well was this inelasticity recognised, so clearly was it understood that by no circumstances could Endymion Westcote permit himself to be upset, that none of the snowed-up company at "The Dogs" thought a bit the worse of him for having gone home and left them to shift as best they could.
Dorothea, when at about half-past ten she put on her bonnet and cloak and stepped down to visit them--the prisoners having by that time cleared the pavement--found herself surrounded by a crew humorously apologetic for their toilettes, profoundly envious of her better luck, but on excellent terms with one another and the younger ones, at any rate, who had borne the worst of the discomfort--enjoying the adventure thoroughly.
"But the life and soul of it all was that M. Raoul," confessed Lady Bateson's niece.
"By George!" echoed the schoolboy who had danced the "Soldier's Joy" with Dorothea, "I wouldn't have believed it of a Frenchy."
For some reason Dorothea was not too well pleased.
"But I do not see M. Raoul."
"Oh, he's down by the bridge, helping the relief party. One would guess him worn out. He ran from lodging to lodging, turning the occupants out of their beds and routing about for fresh linen. They say he even carried old Mrs. Kekewich pick-a-back through the snow."
"And tucked her in bed," added the schoolboy. "And then he came back, wet almost to the waist, and danced."
He looked roguishly at Lady Bateson's niece, and the pair exploded in laughter.
They ran off as General Rochambeau, jaded and unshaven, approached and saluted Dorothea.
"Until Miss Westcote appeared, we held our own against the face of day. Now, alas, the conspiracy can no longer be kept up."
"You had no compliment for me last night, General."
"Forgive me, Mademoiselle." He lowered his voice and spoke earnestly. "I have a genuine one for you to-day--I compliment your heart. M. Raoul has told me of your interest in our poor compatriots, and what you intend--"
"I fear I can do little," Dorothea interrupted, mindful of her late encounter and (as she believed) defeat. "By all accounts, M. Raoul appears to have made himself agreeable to all," she added.
The old gentleman chuckled and took snuff.
"He loves an audience. At about four in the morning, when all the elders were in bed--(pardon me, Mademoiselle, if I claim to reckon myself among les jeunes; my poor back tells me at what cost)--at about four in the morning the young lady who has just left you spoke of a new dance she had seen performed this season at Bath. Well, it appears that M. Raoul had also seen it a--valtz they called it, or some such name. Whereupon nothing would do but they must dance it together. Such a dance, Mademoiselle! Roll, roll--round and round-- roll, roll--but perpendicularly, you understand. By-and-by the others began to copy them, and someone asked M. Raoul where he had found this accomplishment. 'Oh, in my travels,' says he, and points to one of the panels; and there, if you will believe me, the fellow had actually painted himself as Perseus in the Garden of the Hesperides."
Poor Dorothea glanced towards the panel.
"Ah, you remember it! But he must have painted in the face after showing it to us the other day, or I should have recognised it at the time. You must come and see it; really an excellent portrait!"
He led her towards it. The orange curtain no longer hid the third nymph. But the blood which had left Dorothea's face rushed back as she saw that the trinket had been roughly erased.
"It was quite a coup, but M. Raoul loves an audience."
Shortly before noon the road by the bridge was reported to be clear. Carriages were announced, and the guests shook hands and were rolled away--the elder glum, their juniors in boisterous spirits. As each carriage passed the bridge, where M. Raoul stood among the workmen, handkerchiefs fluttered out, and he lifted his hat gaily in response.