The Westcotes by Arthur Quiller-Couch
Chapter VII. Love and an Old Maid
I pray you be gentle with Dorothea. Find, if you can, something admirable in this plain spinster keeping, at the age of thirty-seven, a room in her breast adorned and ready for first love; find it pitiful, if you must, that the blind boy should mistake his lodging; only do not laugh, or your laughter may accuse you in the sequel.
She had a most simple heart. Wonder filled it as she rode home to Bayfield, and by the bridge she reined up Mercury as if to take her bearings in an unfamiliar country. At her feet rushed the Axe, swollen by spring freshets; a bullfinch, wet from his bath, bobbed on the sand- stone parapet, shook himself, and piped a note or two; away up the stream, among the alders, birds were chasing and courting; from above the Bayfield elms, out of spaces of blue, the larks' song fell like a din of innumerable silver hammers. Either new sense had been given her, or the rains had washed the landscape and restored obliterated lines, colours, meanings. The very leaves by the roadside were fragrant as flowers.
For the moment it sufficed to know that she was loved, and that she loved. She was no fool. At the back of all her wonder lay the certainty that in the world's eyes such love as hers was absurd; that it must end where it began; that Raoul could never be hers, nor she escape from a captivity as real as his. But, perhaps because she knew all this so certainly, she could put it aside. This thing had come to her: this happiness to which, alone, in darkness, depressed by every look into the mirror, by every casual proof that her brothers and intimates accepted the verdict as final, her soul had been loyal--a forgotten servant of a neglectful lord. In the silence of her own room, in her garden, in the quiet stir of household duties, and again during the long evenings while she sat knitting by the fire and her brothers talked, she had pondered much upon love and puzzled herself with many questions. She had watched girls and their lovers, wives and their husbands. Can love (she had asked) draw near and pass and go its way unrecognised? She had conned the signs. Now the hour had come, and she had needed none of her learning--eyes, hands, and voice, she had known the authentic god.
And she knew that it was not absurd; she knew herself worthy of love's belated condescension--not Raoul's; for the moment she scarcely thought of Raoul; for the moment Raoul's image grew faint and indefinite in the glory of being loved. Instinct, too, thrust it into the background; for as Raoul grew definite so must his youth, his circumstances, the world's laughter, the barriers never to be overcome. But merely to be loved, and to rest in that knowledge awhile--here were no barriers. The thing had happened: it was: nothing could forbid or efface it.
Yet when she reached home, after forcing the astonished Mercury to canter up the entire length of Bayfield hill, she must walk straight to her room, and study her face in the glass.
"It has happened to you--to you! Why has it not transfigured you?-- but then people would guess. Your teeth stand out--well, not so very prominently--but they stand out, and that is why foreigners laugh at Englishwomen. Yes, it has happened to you; but why? how?" It so happened that she must meet him the next day. Narcissus had engaged him to make drawings of the Bayfield pavement, a new series to supersede hers in an enlarged edition of the treatise. Every one of the tessellae was to be drawn to scale, and she must meet him to-morrow in the library with her brother and receive instructions, for she had promised to help in taking measurements.
When the time came, and she entered the library, she did not indeed dare to lift her eyes. But Narcissus, already immersed in calculations, scarcely looked up from his paper. "Ah, there you are! Have you brought the India-ink?" he asked, and after a minute she marvelled at her own self-possession. Even when he left them to work out the measurements together (and it flashed upon her that henceforth they would often be left together, her immunity being taken for granted), she kept her head bowed over the papers and managed to control her voice to put one or two ordinary questions--until the pencil dropped from her fingers and she felt her hand imprisoned.
"Oh, please, no!" she entreated hoarsely. "M. Raoul--!"
"Charles--" She attempted to draw her hand away; but, failing, lifted her eyes for mercy. They were sick and troubled. "Charles," he insisted.
"Charles, then." She relented and he kissed her gaily. It was as if she drank in the kiss and, the next moment, recoiled from it. He released her hand and waited, watching her. She stood upright by the table, her shoulder turned to him, her eyes gazing through the long window upon the green stretch of lawn. She was trembling slightly.
"It--it hurts like a wound," she murmured, and her hand went up to her breast. "But you must listen, please. You know--better than I--that this is the end. Oh, yes"--as he would have interrupted--"it is beautiful--for me. But I am old and you are a boy, and it is all quite silly. Please listen: even apart from this, it would be quite silly and could end nowhere."
He caught at her hand again, and she let it lie in his.
"Nowhere," she repeated, and, lifting her head, nodded twice. Her eyes were brimming.
"But if you love me?" he began.
She waited a moment, but he did not finish. "Ah! there it is, you see: you cannot finish. I was afraid to meet you to-day; but now I am glad, because we can talk about it once and for all. Charles"--she hesitated over the name--"dear, I have been thinking. Since we see this so clearly, it can be no treachery to my brothers to let our love stand where it does. At my age"--and Dorothea laughed nervously--"one is more easily contented than at yours."
"I cannot bear your talking in this way."
"Oh yes, you can," she assured him with a practical little nod. "I don't like it myself, but it has to be done. Now in the first place, when we meet like this there must be no kissing." She blushed, while her voice wavered again over the word; then, as again his hand closed upon hers, she laughed. "Well--yes, you may kiss my hand. But I must not have it on my conscience that I am hiding from Endymion and Narcissus what they have a right to know. Of course they would be angry if they knew that I--that I was fond of you at all; but they would have no right, for they could not have forbidden or prevented it. Now if our prospects were what folks would call happier, why then in earnest of them you might kiss me, but then you would be bound to go to my brothers and tell them. But since it can all come to nothing--" A ghost of a smile finished the sentence.
"This war cannot last for ever."
"It seems to have lasted ever since I can remember. But what difference could its ending make? Ah, yes, then I should lose you!" she cried in dismay, but added with as sudden remorse: "Forgive my selfishness!"
"You are adorable," said he, and they laughed and picked up their pencils.
Dorothea's casuistry might prove her ignorant of love and its perils, as a child is of fire; but having, as she deemed, discovered the limits of her duty and set up her terms with Raoul upon them, she soon developed a wonderful cunning in the art of being loved. Her plainness and the difference in their ages she took for granted, and subtly persuaded Raoul to take for granted; she had no affectations, no minauderies; by instinct she avoided setting up any illusion which he could not share; unconsciously and naturally she rested her strength on the maternal, protective side of love. Raoul came to her with his woes, his difficulties, his quarrel against fate; and she talked them over with him, and advised him almost as might a wise elder sister. She had read the Confessions; and, in spite of the missing pages, with less of fascination than disgust; yet had absorbed more than she knew. In Raoul she recognised certain points of likeness to his great countryman--points which had puzzled, her in the book. Now the book helped her to treat them, though she was unaware of its help. Still less aware was she of any likeness between her and Madame de Warens, of whom (again in spite of the missing pages) she had a poor opinion.
The business of the drawings brought Raoul to Bayfield almost daily, and, as she had foreseen, they were much alone.
After all, since it could end in nothing, the situation had its advantages; no one in the household gave it a thought, apparently. Dorothea was not altogether sure about Polly; once or twice she had caught Polly eying her with an odd expression--once especially, when she had looked up as the girl was plaiting her hair, and their eyes met in the glass. And once again Dorothea had sent her to the library with a note of instructions left that morning by Narcissus, and, following a few minutes later, had found her standing and talking with M. Raoul in an attitude which, without being familiar, was not quite respectful.
"What was she saying?" her mistress asked, a moment or two later.
"Oh, nothing," he answered negligently. "I suppose that class of person cannot be troubled to show respect to prisoners."
That evening Dorothea rated the girl soundly for her pertness. "And I shall speak to Zeally," she threatened, "if anything of the kind happens again. If Mr. Endymion is to let you two have a house when you marry, and take in the Frenchmen as lodgers, he will want to know that you treat them respectfully."
Polly wept, and was forgiven.
April, May, June, went by, and still Dorothea lived in her dream, troubled only by dread of the day which must bring her lover's task to an end, and, with it, his almost daily visits. Bit by bit she learned his story. He told her of Arles, his birthplace, with its Roman masonry and amphitheatre; of a turreted terraced chateau and a family of aristocrats lording it among the vineyards; conspiring a little later with other noble families, entertaining them at secret meetings of the Chiffonne, where oaths were taken; later again, defending itself behind barricades of paving-stones; last of all, marched or carried in batches to the guillotine or the fusillade. He told of Avignon and its Papal Castle overhanging the Rhone, the city where he had spent his school days, and at the age of nine had seen Patriot L'Escuyer stabbed to death in the Cordeliers' Church with women's scissors; had seen Jourdan, the avenger, otherwise Coupe-tete, march flaming by at the head of his brave brigands d'Avignon. He told of the sequel, the hundred and thirty men, women and babes slaughtered in the dungeon of the Glaciere; of Choisi's Dragoons and Grenadiers at the gates, and how, with roses scattered before them, they marched through the streets to the Castle, entered the gateway and paused, brought to a stand by the stench of putrefying flesh. He and his school mates had taken a holiday--their master being in hiding--to see the bodies lifted out. Also he had seen the search party ride out through the gates and return again, bringing Jourdan, with feet strapped beneath his horse's belly. He told of his journey to, Paris--his purpose to learn to paint (at such a time!); of the great David, fat and wheezy, back at his easel, panting from civil blood-shed; of the call to arms, his enlistment, his first campaign of 1805; of the foggy morning of Austerlitz, his wound, and he long hours he lay in the rear of a battery on the height of Pratzen, writhing, watching the artillerymen at work and so on, with stories of marching and fighting, nights slept out by him at full length on the sodden turf beside his arms.
She had no history to tell him in exchange; she asked only to listen and to comfort. Yet so cleverly he addressed his story that the longest monologue became, by aid of a look or pressure of the hand, a conversation in which she, his guardian angel, bore her part. Did he talk of Avignon, for instance? It was the land of Laura and Petrarch, and she, seated with half-closed eyes beneath the Bayfield elms, saw the pair beside the waters of Vaucluse, saw the roses and orange-trees and arid plains of Provence, and wondered at the trouble in their spiritual love. She was not troubled; love as "a dureless content and a trustless joy" lay outside of her knowledge, and she had no desire to prove it. In this only she forgot the difference between Raoul's age and hers.
The day came when his work was ended. They spent a great part of that afternoon in the garden, now in the height of its midsummer glory. Raoul was very silent.
"But this must not end. It cannot end so!" he groaned once or twice.
He never forgot for long his old spite against Time.
"It will never end for me," she murmured.
"Of what are you made, then, that you look forward to living on shadows?--one would say, almost cheerfully! I believe you could be happy if you never saw me again!"
"Even if that had to be," she answered gravely, "while I knew you loved me I should never be quite unhappy. But you must find a way, while you can, to come sometimes; yes, you must come."