The Westcotes by Arthur Quiller-Couch
Chapter V. Begins with Ancient History and Ends with an Old Story
"Ubicunque vicit Romanus habitat,--Where the Roman conquered he settled--and it is from his settlements that to-day we deduce his conquests. Of Vespasian and his second legion the jejune page of Suetonius records neither where they landed nor at what limit their victorious eagles were stayed. Yet will the patient investigator trace their footprints across many a familiar landscape of rural England, led by the blurred imperishable impress he has learned to recognise. The invading host sweeps forward, and is gone; but behind it the homestead arises and smiles upon the devastated fields, arms yield to the implements and habiliments of peace, and the colonist, who supersedes the legionary, in time furnishes the sole evidence of his feverish and ensanguined transit . . ."
Narcissus was enjoying himself amazingly. His audience endured him because the experience was new, and their ears caught the rattle of tea-cups in the adjoining library.
Dorothea sat counting her guests, and assuring herself that the number of teacups would suffice. She had heard the lecture many times before, and with repetition its sonorous periods had lost hold upon her, although her brother had been at pains to model them upon Gibbon.
But the scene impressed her sharply, and she carried away a very lively picture of it. The old Roman villa had been built about a hollow square open to the sky, and this square now formed the great hall of Bayfield. Deep galleries of two stories surrounded it, in place of the old colonnaded walk. Out of these opened the principal rooms of the house, and above them, upon a circular lantern of clear glass, was arched a painted dome. Sheathed on the outside with green weather-tinted copper, and surmounted by a gilt ball, this dome (which could be seen from the Axcester High Street when winter stripped the Bayfield elms) gave the building something of the appearance of an observatory.
On the north side of the hall a broad staircase descended from the gallery to the tiled floor, in the midst of which a fountain played beneath a cupola supported by slender columns. On the west the recess beneath the gallery had been deepened to admit a truly ample fireplace, with a flat hearthstone and andirons. Here were screens and rich Turkey rugs, and here the Bayfield household ordinarily had the lamps set after dinner and gathered before the fire, talking little, enjoying the long pauses filled with the hiss of logs and the monotonous drip and trickle of water in the penumbra.
To-day the prisoners--two hundred in all--crowded the floor, the stairs, even the deep gallery above; but on the south side, facing the staircase, two heavy curtains had been looped back from the atrium, and there a ray of wintry sunshine fell through the glass roof upon the famous Bayfield pavement and the figure of Narcissus gravely expounding it.
He had reached his peroration, and Dorothea, who knew every word of it by heart, was on the alert. At its close the audience held their breath for a second or two and then--satisfied, as their hostess rose, that he had really come to an end--tendered their applause, and, breaking into promiscuous chatter, trooped towards the tea-room. Narcissus lingered, with bent head, oblivious, silently repeating the last well- worn sentences while he conned his beloved tessellae.
A voice aroused him from his brown study; he looked up, to find the hall deserted and M. Raoul standing at his elbow.
"Will you remember your promise, Monsieur, and allow me to examine a little more closely? Ah, but it is wonderful! That Pentheus! And the Maenad there, carrying the torn limb! Also the border of vine-leaves and crossed thyrsi; though that, to be sure, is usual enough. And this next? Ah, I remember--'Tu cum parentis regna per arduum'; but what a devil of a design! And, above all, what mellowness! You will, I know, pardon the enthusiasm of one who comes from the Provence, a few miles out of Arles, and whose mother's family boasts itself to be descended from Roman colonists."
"To you then, M. Raoul, after your Forum and famous Amphitheatre, our pavement must seem a poor trifle--though it by no means exhausts our list of interesting remains. The praefurnium, for instance; I must show you our praefurnium."
"The house would be remarkable anywhere--even in my own Provence--so closely has it kept the original lines. In half-an-hour one could reconstruct--"
"Ay!" chimed in the delighted Narcissus. "You shall try, M. Raoul, you shall try! I promise to catch you tripping."
"Yonder runs the Fosse Way, west by south. The villa stands about two hundred yards back from it, facing the south-east--"
"A little east of south. The outer walls did not run exactly true with the enclosed quadrangle."
"You say that the front measured two hundred feet, perhaps a little over. Clearly, then, it was a domain of much importance, and the granaries, mills, stables, slaves' dwellings would occupy much space about it--an acre and a half, at least."
"Portions of a brick foundation were unearthed no less than three hundred yards away. A hypocaust lay embedded among them, much broken but recognisable."
"What puzzles me," mused M. Raoul, is how these southern settlers managed to endure the climate."
"But that is explicable." Narcissus was off now, in full cry. "The trees, my dear sir, the trees! I have not the slightest doubt that our Bayfield elms are the ragged survivors of an immense forest--a forest which covered the whole primaeval face of Somerset on this side of the fens, and through which Vespasian's road-makers literally hewed their way. Given these forests--which, by the way, extended over the greater part of England--we must infer a climate totally unlike ours of this present day, damper perhaps, but milder. Within his belt of trees the colonist, secure from the prevailing winds, would plant a garden to rival your gardens of the South--'primus vere rosam atque autumno carpere Poma.'"
"Yes," added M. Raoul, taking fire; "and, perhaps, a plant of helichryse or a rose-cutting from Paestum, to twine about the house- pillars and comfort his exile."
"M. Raoul?" Dorothea's voice interrupted them. She stood by the looped curtain, and reproached Narcissus with a look. "He has had no tea yet; it was cruel of you to detain him. My brother, sir," she turned to Raoul, "has no conscience when once set going on his hobby; for, of course, you were discussing the pavement?"
"We were talking, Mademoiselle, at that moment of the things which brighten and comfort exile."
She lowered her eyes, conscious of a blush, and half angry that it would not be restrained.
"And I was talking of tea, if that happens to be one of them," she replied, forcing a laugh.
"Well, well," said Narcissus, "take M. Raoul away and give him his tea; but he must come with me afterwards, while there is light, and we will go over the site together. I must fetch my map."
He hurried across the hall.
"Come, M. Raoul," said Dorothea, stepping past her guest and leading the way, "by a small detour we can reach that end of the library which is least crowded."
He followed without lifting his eyes, apparently lost in thought. The atrium on this side opened on a corridor which crossed the front door, and was closed by a door at either end--the one admitting to the service rooms, the other to the library. Flat columns relieved the blank wall of this passage, with monstrous copies of Raphael's cartoons filling the interspaces; on the other hand four tall windows, two on either side of the door, looked out upon the porte cochere, the avenue, and the rolling hills beyond Axcester. By one of these windows M. Raoul halted--and Dorothea halted too, slightly puzzled.
"Ah, Mademoiselle, but there is one thing your brother forgets! What became of his happy colonists in the end? He told us that early in the fifth century the Emperor Honorius--was it not?--withdrew his legions, and wrote that Britain must henceforth look after itself. I listened for the end of the story, but your brother did not supply it. Yet sooner or later one and the same dreadful fate must have overtaken all these pleasant scattered homes--sack and fire and slaughter-- slaughter for all the men, for the women slavery and worse. Does one hear of any surviving? Out of this warm life into silence--" He paused and shivered. "Very likely they did not guess for a long while. Look, Mademoiselle, at the Fosse Way, stretching yonder across the hills: figure yourself a daughter of the old Roman homestead standing here and watching the little cloud of dust that meant the retreating column, the last of your protection. You would not guess what it meant--you, to whom each day has brought its restful round; who have lived only to be good and reflect the sunshine upon all near you. And I--your slave, suppose me, standing beside you--might guess as little."
He took a step and touched her hand. His face was still turned to the window.
"Time! time!" he went on in a low voice, charged with passion. "It eats us all! Brr--how I hate it! How I hate the grave! There lies the sting, Mademoiselle--the torture to be a captive: to feel one's best days slipping away, and fate still denying to us poor devils the chance which even the luckiest--God knows--find little enough." He laughed, and to Dorothea the laugh sounded passing bitter. "You will not understand how a man feels; how even so unimportant a creature as I must bear a sort of personal grudge against his fate."
"I am trying to understand," said Dorothea, gently.
"But this you can understand, how a prisoner loves the sunshine: not because, through his grating, it warms him; but because it is the sunshine, and he sees it. Mademoiselle, I am not grateful; I see merely, and adore. Some day you shall pause by this window and see a cloud of dust on the Fosse Way--the last of us prisoners as they march us from Axcester to the place of our release; and, seeing it, you shall close the book upon a chapter, but not without remembering"--he touched her hand again, but now his fingers closed on it, and he raised it to his lips,--"not without remembering how and when one Frenchman said, 'God bless you, Mademoiselle Dorothea!'"
Dorothea's eyes were wet when, a moment later, Narcissus came bustling through the atrium with a roll of papers in his hand.
"Ah, this is luck!" he cried. "I was starting to search for you."
He either assumed that they had visited the tea-room or forgot all about it; and M. Raoul's look implored Dorothea not to explain.
"Suppose we take the triclinium first, on the north side of the house. That, sir, will tell you whether I am right or wrong about the climate of those days. A summer parlour facing north, and with no trace of heating-flues! . . ."
He led off his captive, and Dorothea heard his expository tones gather volume as the pair crossed the great hall beneath the dome. Then she turned the handle of the library door, and was instantly deafened by the babel within.
The guests took their departure a little before sunset. M. Raoul was not among the long train which shook hands with her and filed down the avenue at the heels of M. de Tocqueville and General Rochambeau. Twenty minutes later, while the servants were setting the hall in order, she heard her brother's voice beneath the window of her boudoir, explaining the system on which the Romans warmed their houses.
She had picked up a religious book, but found herself unable to fix her attention upon it or even to sit still. Her hand still burned where M. Raoul's lips had touched it. She recalled Endymion's prophecy that these entertainments would throw the domestic mechanism--always more delicately poised on Sundays than on weekdays--completely oft its pivot. She had pledged herself to prevent this, and had made a private appeal to the maidservants with whose Sunday-out they interfered. They had responded loyally.
Still, this was the first experiment; she would go down to the hall again and make sure that the couches were in position, the cushions shaken up, the pot-plants placed around the fountain so accurately that Endymion's nice eye for small comforts could detect no excuse for saying, "I told you so."
As she passed along the gallery her eyes sought the pillar beside which M. Raoul had stood during the lecture. By the foot of it a book lay face downwards--a book cheaply bound between boards of mottled paper. She picked it up and read the title; it was a volume of Rousseau's Confessions--a book of which she remembered to have heard. On the flyleaf was written the owner's name in full--"Charles Marie Fabien de Raoul."
Dorothea hurried downstairs with it and past the servants tidying the hall.
She looked to find M. Raoul still buttonholed and held captive by Narcissus at the eastern angle of the house. But before she reached the front door she happened--though perhaps it was not quite accidental-- to throw a glance through the window by which he had stood and talked with her, and saw him striding away down the avenue in the dusk.
She returned to her room and summoned Polly.
"You know M. Raoul? He has left, forgetting this book, which belongs to him. Run down to the small gate, that's a good girl--you will overtake him easily, since he is walking round by the avenue--and return it, with my compliments."
Polly picked up her skirts and ran. A narrow path slanted down across the slope of the park to the nurseries--a sheltered corner in which the Bayfield gardener grew his more delicate evergreens--and here a small wicket-gate opened on the high road.
The gate stood many feet above the road, which descended the hill between steep hedges. She heard M. Raoul's footstep as she reached it, and, peering over, saw him before he caught sight of her; indeed, he had almost passed with-out when she hailed him.
"Holloa!" He swung almost rightabout and smiled up pleasantly. "Is it highway robbery? If so, I surrender."
Polly laughed, showing a fine set of teeth.
"I'm 'most out of breath," she answered. "You've left your book behind, and my mistress sent it after you with her compliments." She held it above the gate.
He sprang up the bank towards her. "And a pretty book, too, to be found in your hands! You haven't been reading it, I hope."
"La, no! Is it wicked?"
"Much depends on where you happen to open it. Now if your sweetheart--"
"Who told you I had one?"
"Tut-tut-tut! What's his name?"
"Well, if you must know, I'm walking out with Corporal Zeally. But what are you doing to the book?" For M. Raoul had taken out a penknife and was slicing out page after page--in some places whole blocks of pages together.
"When I've finished, I'm going to ask you to take it back to your mistress; and then no doubt you'll be reading it on the sly. Here, I must sit down: suppose you let me perch myself on the top bar of the gate. Also, it would be kind of you to put up an arm and prevent my overbalancing."
"I shouldn't think of it."
"Oh, very well!" He climbed up, laid the book on his knee and went on slicing. "I particularly want her to read M. Rousseau's reflections on the Pont du Gard; but I don't seem to have a book marker, unless you lend me a lock of your hair."
"Were you the gentleman she danced with, at 'The Dogs,' the night of the snowstorm?"
"The Pont du Gard, my dear, is a Roman antiquity, and has nothing to do with dancing. If, as I suppose, you refer to the 'Pont de Lodi,' that is a totally different work of art."
"I'm sure I don't know what you mean."
"And I don't intend that you shall."
He cut a small strip of braid from his coat, inserted it for a bookmarker, and began to fold away the excised pages. "That's why I am keeping these back for my own perusal, and perhaps Corporal Zeally's."
"Do you know him?" She reached up to take the book he was holding out in his left hand, and the next instant his right arm was round her neck and he had kissed her full on the lips. "Oh, you wretch!" she cried, breaking free; and laughed, next moment, as he nearly toppled off the gate.
"Know him? Why of course I do." M. Raoul was reseating himself on his perch, when he happened to throw a look down into the road, and at once broke into immoderate laughter. "Talk of the wolf--"
Polly screamed and ran. Below, at a bend of the road, stood a stoutish figure in the uniform of the Axcester Volunteers--scarlet, with white facings. It was Corporal Zeally, very slowly taking in the scene.
M. Raoul skipped off the gate and stepped briskly past him. "Good- evening, Corporal! We're both of us a little behind time, this evening!" said he as he went by.
The Corporal pivoted on his heels and stared after him.
"Dang my living buttons!" he said, reflectively. "Couldn't even wait till my back was turned, but must kiss the maid under my nose!" He paused and rubbed his chin. "Her looked like Polly and her zounded like Polly . . . Dang this dimpsey old light, I've got a good mind to run after'n and ax'n who 'twas!" He took a step down the hill, but thought better, of it. "No, I won't," he said; "I'll go and ax Polly."