The Westcotes by Arthur Quiller-Couch
Chapter VI. Fate in a Laurelled Post-Chaise
All the tongues of Rumour agreed that the Bayfield entertainment had been a success, and Endymion Westcote received many congratulations upon it at the next meeting of magistrates.
"Nonsense, nonsense!" he protested lightly. "One must do something to make life more tolerable to the poor devils, and 'pon my word 'twas worth it to see their gratitude. They behaved admirably. You see, two- thirds of them are gentlemen, after a fashion; not, perhaps, quite in the sense in which we understand the word, but then the--ah--modicum of French blood in my veins counteracts, I dare say, some little insular prejudices."
"My dear fellow, about such men as de Tocqueville and Rochambeau there can be no possible question."
"Ah! I'm extremely glad to hear you say so. I feared, perhaps, the way they managed their table-napkins--"
"Not at all. I was thinking rather of your bold attitude towards Sunday observance. What does Milliton say?"
Endymion's eyebrows went up. Mr. Milliton was the vicar of Axcester and the living lay in the Westcotes' gift. I am not--ah--aware that I consulted Milliton. On such questions I recognise no responsibility save to my own conscience. He has not been complaining, I trust?"
"Not to my knowledge."
"Ah!" Endymion looked as if Mr. Milliton had better not. "I take, you must know, a somewhat broad view on such matters--may I, without offence, term it a liberal one? As a matter of fact I intend going yet farther in the direction and granting permission for a small reunion on Sunday evenings at 'The Dogs,' when selections of purely sacred music will be performed. I shall, of course, deprecate the name 'concert '; and even 'performance' may seem to carry with it some--ah-- suggestions of a theatrical nature. But, as Shakespeare says, 'What's in a name?' Perhaps you can suggest a more suitable one?"
"A broad-minded fellow," was the general verdict; and some admirers added that ideas which in weaker men might seem to lean towards free thought, and even towards Jacobinism, became Mr. Westcote handsomely enough. He knew how to carry them off, to wear them lightly as flourishes and ornaments of his robust common sense, and might be trusted not to go too far. Endymion, who had an exquisite flair for the approval of his own class, soon learned to take an honest pride in his liberalism and to enjoy its discreet display. 'The entertainment at Bayfield' was nothing--a private experiment only; the unfamiliar must be handled gently; a good rule to try it on your own household before tackling the world. As a matter of fact, old Narcissus had enjoyed it. But if the neighbouring families were really curious, and would promise not to be shocked, they must come to "The Dogs" some Sunday evening: No, not next Sunday, but in a week or two's time when the prisoners, as intelligent fellows, would have grasped his notions.'
Sure enough, on the third Sunday he brought a round dozen of guests; and the entrance of the Bayfield party (punctually five minutes late), and their solemn taking of seats in the two front rows, thereafter became a feature of these entertainments. On the first occasion the musicians stopped, out of respect, in the middle of a motet of Scarlatti's; but Endymion gave orders that in future this was not to be.
"I have been something of an amateur myself," he explained, "and know what is due to Art."
It vexed Dorothea to note that after the first two or three performances some of her best friends among the prisoners absented themselves, General Rochambeau for one. Indeed, the General had taken to declining all invitations, and rarely appeared abroad. One March morning, meeting him in the High Street, she made bold to tax him with the change and ask his reasons.
The hour was eleven in the forenoon, the busiest of the day. In twenty minutes the London coach would be due with the mails, and this always brought the prisoners out into the street. The largest crowd gathered in front of "The Dogs," waiting to see the horses changed and the bags unloaded. But a second hung around the Post Office, where the Commissary received and distributed the prisoners' letters, while lesser groups shifted and moved about at the tail of the butchers' carts, and others laden with milk, eggs, and fresh vegetables from the country; for Axcester had now a daily market, and in the few minutes before the mail's arrival the salesmen drove their best trade.
General Rochambeau tapped his snuffbox meditatively, like a man in two minds. But he kept a sidelong eye upon Dorothea, as she turned to acknowledge a bow from the Vicomte de Tocqueville. The Vicomte, with an air of amused contempt, was choosing a steak for his dinner, using his gold-ferruled walking-stick to direct the butcher how to cut it out, while his servant stood ready with a plate.
"To tell you the truth, Mademoiselle, I find a hand at picquet with the Admiral less fatiguing for two old gentlemen than these public gaieties."
"In other words, you are nursing him. They tell me he has never been well since that night of the snowstorm."
"Your informants may now add that he is better; these few Spring days have done wonders for his rheumatism, and, indeed, he is dressed and abroad this morning."
"Which explains why you are willing to stop and chat with me, instead of hurrying off to the Post Office to ask for his letter--that letter which never comes."
"So M. Raoul has been telling you all about us?"
"He happened to speak of it, at one of my working parties--"
"He has a fine gift for the pathetic, that young man; oh, yes, and a pretty humour too! I can fancy what he makes of us--poor old Damon and Pythias--while he holds the skeins; with a smile for poor old Pythias' pigtail, and a tremor of the voice for the Emperor's tabatiere, and a tear, no doubt, for the letter which never comes. M. Raoul is great with an audience."
"You do him injustice, General. An audience of half-a-dozen old women!"
General Rochambeau had an answer to this on his tongue, but repressed it.
"Ah, here comes the Admiral!" he cried, as the gaunt old man came shuffling down the street towards them, with his stoop, his cross- grained features drawn awry with twinges of rheumatism, his hands crossed above his tall cane. All Axcester laughed at his long blue surtout, his pigtail and little round hat. But Dorothea always found him formidable, and wanted to run away. "Admiral, I was just about to tell Miss Westcote that the time is come to congratulate her. Here is winter past--except that of two years ago, the hardest known in Axcester; and, thanks to her subscription lists and working parties, our countrymen have never gone so well fed and warmly clad."
"Which," growled the Admiral, "does not explain why no less than eight of them have broken their parole. An incredible, a shameful number!"
"As time goes on, Admiral, they grow less patient. Hope deferred--"
Ta-ra, tara-ra! Ta-ra, tara-ra-ra! The notes of the guard's horn broke in upon Dorothea's excuse. Groups scattered, market carts were hastily backed alongside the pavement, and down the mid-thoroughfare came the mail at a gallop, with crack of whip and rushing chime of bits and swingle-bars.
Dorothea watched the crowd closing round it as it drew up by "The Dogs," and turned to note that the Admiral's face was pale and his eyes sought those of his old friend.
"Better leave it to me to-day, if Miss Westcote will excuse me."
General Rochambeau lifted his hat and hurried after the crowd.
Then Dorothea understood. The old man beside her had lost courage to pick up his old habit; at the last moment his friend must go for the letter which never came. She cast about to say something; her last words had been of hope deferred--it would not do to take up her speech there . . .
The Admiral seemed to meet her eyes with an effort. He put out a hand.
"It is not good, Mademoiselle, that a man should pity himself. Beware how you teach that; beware how you listen to him then."
He turned from her abruptly and tottered away. Glancing aside, she met the Vicomte de Tocqueville's tired smile; he was using his cane to prod the butcher and recall his attention to the half-cut steak. But the butcher continued to stare down the street.
"Eh? But, dear me, it sounds like an emeute," said the Vicomte, negligently; at the same time stepping to Dorothea's side.
The murmur of the crowd in front of "The Dogs" had been swelling, and now broke into sharp, angry cries for a moment; then settled into a dull roar, and rose in a hoarse crescendo. The mail coach was evidently not the centre of disturbance, though Dorothea could see its driver waving his arm and gesticulating from the box. The noise came ahead of it, some twenty yards lower down the hill, where the street had suddenly grown black with people pressing and swaying.
"There seems no danger here, whatever it is," said the Vicomte, glancing up at the house-front above.
"Please go and see what is the matter. I am safe enough," Dorothea assured him. "The folks in the house will give me shelter, if necessary."
The Vicomte lifted his hat. "I will return and report promptly, if the affair be serious."
But it was not serious. The tumult died down, and Dorothea with her riding-switch was guarding the half-cut steak from a predatory dog when the Vicomte and the butcher returned together.
"Reassure yourself, Miss Westcote," said M. de Tocqueville. "There has been no bloodshed, though bloodshed was challenged. It appears that almost as the coach drew up there arrived from the westward a post- chaise conveying a young naval officer from Plymouth, with despatches and (I regret to tell it) a flag. His Britannic Majesty has captured another of our frigates; and the high spirited young gentleman was making the most of it in all innocence, and without an idea that his triumph could offend anyone in Axcester. Unfortunately, on his way up the street, he waved the captured tricolor under the nose of your brother's protege, M. Raoul--"
"M. Raoul!" Dorothea caught her breath on the name.
"And M. Raoul leapt into the chaise, then and there wrested the flag from him--the more easily no doubt because he expected nothing so little and holding it aloft, challenged him to mortal combat. Theatrically, and apart from the taste of it (I report only from hearsay), the coup must have been immensely successful. When I arrived, your brother was restoring peace, the young Briton holding out his hand--swearing he was sorry, begad! but how the deuce was he to have known ?--and M. Raoul saving the situation, and still demanding blood with a face as long as an Alexandrine:
"'Ce drapeau glorieux auquel, en sanglotant,
"'Vary sorry, damitol, shake hands, beg your pardon.'"
The Vicomte forgot his languor, and burlesqued the scene with real talent.
Dorothea, however, was not amused.
"You say my brother is at 'The Dogs,' Monsieur? I think I will go to him."
"You must allow me, then, to escort you."
"Oh, the street is quite safe. Your countrymen will not suspect me of exulting over their misfortunes."
"Nevertheless--" he insisted, and walked beside her.
A mixed crowd of French and English still surrounded the chaise, to which a couple of postboys were attaching the relay: the French no longer furious, now that an apology had been offered and the flag hidden, but silent and sulky yet; the English inclined to think the young lieutenant hardly served, not to say churlishly. Frenchmen might be thin-skinned; but war was war, and surely Britons had a right to raise three cheers for a victory. Besides he had begged pardon at once, and offered to shake hands like a gentleman--that is, as soon as he discovered whose feelings were hurt; for naturally the fisticuffs had come first, and in these Master Raoul had taken as good as he brought. As the Vicomte cleared a path for her to the porch, where Endymion stood shaking hands and bidding adieu, Dorothea caught her first and last glimpse of this traveller, who--without knowing it, without seeing her face to remember it, or even learning her name--was to deflect the slow current of her life, and send it whirling down a strange channel, giddy, precipitous, to an end unguessed.
She saw a fresh-complexioned lad, somewhat flushed and red in the face, but of frank and pleasant features; dressed in a three-cornered cocked- hat, blue coat piped with white and gilt-buttoned, white breeches and waistcoat, and broad black sword-belt; a youngster of the sort that loves a scrimmage or a jest, but is better in a scrimmage than in a jest when the laugh goes against him. He was eying the chaise just now, and obviously cursing the hour in which he had decorated it with laurel.
Yet on the whole in a trying situation he bore himself well.
"Ah, much obliged to you, Vicomte!" Endymion hailed the pair. "There has been a small misunderstanding, my dear Dorothea; not the slightest cause for alarm! Still, you had better pass through to the coffee-room and wait for me."
Dorothea dismissed M. de Tocqueville with a bow, passed into the dark passage and pushed open the coffee-room door.
Within sat a young man, his elbows on the table, and his face bowed upon his arms. His fingers convulsively twisted a torn scrap of bunting; his shoulders heaved. It was M. Raoul.
Dorothea paused in the doorway and spoke his name. He did not look up.
She stepped towards him.
A sob shook him. She laid a hand gently on his bowed head, on the dark wave of hair above his strong, shapely neck. She was full of pity, longing to comfort . . .
He started, gazed up at her, and seized her hand. His eyes swam with tears, but behind the tears blazed a light which frightened her. Yet-- oh, surely!--she could not mistake it.
He held both her hands now. He was drawing her towards him. She could not speak. The room swam; outside the window she heard the noise of starting hoofs, of wheels, of the English crowd hurrahing as the chaise rolled away. Her head almost touched M. Raoul's breast. Then she broke loose, as her brother's step sounded in the passage.