The Westcotes by Arthur Quiller-Couch
Chapter VIII. Corporal Zeally Intervenes
Dorothea sat in the great hall of Bayfield, between the lamplight and the moonlight, listening to the drip of the fountain beneath its tiny cupola. A midsummer moon-ray fell through the uncurtained lantern beneath the dome and spread in a small pool of silver at her feet. Beneath one of the two shaded lamps Endymion lounged in his armchair and read the Sherborne Mercury. Narcissus had carried off the other to a table across the hall by the long bookcase, and above the pot-plants banked about the fountain she saw it shining on his shapely grey head as he bent over a copy of the Antonine Itinerary and patiently worked out a new theory of its distances. Her own face rested in deep shadow, and she felt grateful for it as she leaned back thinking her own thoughts. It was a whole week now since Charles had visited Bayfield, but she had encountered him that morning in Axcester High Street as she passed up it on horseback with her brothers. Narcissus had reined up to put some question or other about the drawings, but Endymion (who did not share his brother's liking for M. Raoul) had ridden on, and she had ridden on too, though reluctantly. She recalled his salute, his glance at her, and down-dropped eyes; she wondered what point Narcissus and he had discussed, and blamed herself for not having found courage to ask. . . .
The stable clock struck ten. She arose and kissed her brothers good- night. By Narcissus she paused.
"Be careful of your eyes, dear. And if you are going to be busy with that great book these next few evenings I will have the table brought across to the other side where you will be cosier."
Narcissus came out of his calculations and looked up at her gently. "Please do not disarrange the furniture for me; a change always fidgets me, even before I take in precisely what has happened." He smiled. "In that I resemble my old friend Vespasian, who would have no alterations made when he visited his home--manente villa qualis fuerat olim, ne quid scilicet oculorum consuetudini deperiret. A pleasant trait, I have always thought."
He lit her candle and kissed her, and Dorothea went up the broad staircase to her own room. Half-way along the corridor she stayed a moment to look down upon the hall. Endymion had dropped his newspaper and was yawning; a sure sign that Narcissus, already reabsorbed in the Itinerary, would in a few moments be hurried from it to bed.
She reached the door of her room and opened it, then checked an exclamation of annoyance. For some mysterious reason Polly had forgotten to light her candle. This was her rule, never broken before.
She stepped to the bellpull. Her hand was on it, when she heard the girl's voice muttering in the next room--the boudoir. At least, it sounded like Polly's voice, though its tone was strangely subdued and level. "Talking to herself," Dorothea decided, and smiled, in spite of her annoyance, as everyone smiles who catches another in this trick. She dropped the bellpull and opened the boudoir door.
Polly was not talking to herself. She was leaning far out of the open window, and at the sound of the door started back into the room with a gasp and a short cry.
"To whom were you talking?"
Dorothea had set the candle down in the bedroom. Outside the window the park lay spread to the soft moonshine, but the moon did not look directly into the boudoir. In the half-light mistress and maid sought each other's eyes.
"To whom were you talking?" Dorothea demanded, sternly.
Polly was silent for a second or two, then her chin went up defiantly.
"To Mr. Raoul," she muttered.
"To M. Raoul!--to M. Raoul? I don't understand. Is M. Raoul--Oh, for goodness sake speak, girl! What is that? I see a piece of paper in your hand."
Polly twisted it in her fingers, and made a movement to hide it in her pocket; but with the movement she seemed to reflect.
"He gave it to me; I don't understand anything about it. I was shutting the window, when he whistled to me; he gave me this. I--I think he meant it for you."
Polly's tone suddenly became saucy, but her voice shook.
Dorothea was shaking too, as her fingers closed on the note. She vainly sought to read the girl's eyes. Her own cheeks were burning; she felt the blood rushing into them and singing in her ears. Yet in her abasement she kept her dignity, and, motioning Polly to follow, stepped into the bedroom, unfolded the letter slowly, and read it by the candle there.
There was no signature, but well enough Dorothea knew the handwriting. A wave of anger swelled in her heart--the first she had ever felt towards him. He had behaved selfishly. "See what I risk for you!"-- but to what risk was he exposing her! He was breaking their covenant too; demanding that which he must know her conscience abhorred. She had not believed he could understand her so poorly, held her so cheap. Cheap indeed, since he had risked her secret in Polly's hand!
She turned the paper over, noting its creases. Suddenly--"You have opened and read this!" she said.
Polly admitted it with downcast eyes. The girl, after the first surprise, had demeaned herself admirably, and now stood in the attitude proper to a confidential servant; solicitous, respectful, prepared to blink the peccadillo, even to sympathise discreetly at a hint given.
"I'm sorry, Miss, that I opened it; I ought to have told you, but you took me by surprise. You know, Miss, that you gave me leave to run down to my aunt's this evening; and on my way back--just as I was letting myself in by the nursery gate, Mr. Raoul comes tearing up the hill after me and slips this into my hand. To tell you the truth, it rather frightened me being run after like that. And he said something and ran back--for nine was just striking, and in a moment the Ting-tang would be ringing and he must be back to answer his name. So in my fluster I didn't catch what he meant. When I got home and opened it, I saw my mistake. But you were downstairs at dinner--I couldn't get to speak with you alone--I waited to tell you; and just now, when I was drawing the blinds, I heard a whistle--"
"M. Raoul had no right to send me such a message, Polly. I cannot think what he means by it. Nothing that I have ever said to him--"
"No, Miss," Polly assented readily. After a pause she added: "I suppose you'd like me to go now? You won't be wanting your hair done to-night?"
"Certainly I wish you to stay. Is he--is M. Raoul outside?"
"I think so, Miss. Oh, yes--for certain he is."
"Then I must insist on your staying with me while I dismiss him."
"Very good, Miss. Would you wish me to stay here, or to come with you?"
Dorothea felt herself blushing, and her temper rose again. "For the moment, stay here. I will leave the door open and call you when you are wanted."
She passed into the boudoir and bent to the open window. At this corner the foundations of the house stood some feet lower than the slope out of which they had been levelled, and she looked down upon a glacis of smooth turf, capped by a glimmering parapet of Bath stone. Beyond stretched the moonlit park.
"M. Raoul!" she called, but scarcely above a whisper.
A figure crept out from the dark angle below and climbed to the parapet.
"Dorothea! Forgive me! Another night and no word with you--I could not bear it."
"You are mad. You are breaking your parole and risking shame for me. Nay, you have shamed me already. Polly is here."
"Polly is a good girl; she understands. A word, then, if you must drive me away."
"I can pass the sentries. No fear of the patrol hereabouts. Your hand-- let down your hand to me. I can reach it from the parapet here--with my fingers only, not with my lips, though even that you never forbade!"
Weakly, she lowered her arm over the sill. He reached to touch it, and she leaned her face towards his--hers in shadow, his pale in the moonlight.
Before their fingers met, a yellow flame leapt from the angle to the left; a loud report banged in her ears and echoed across the park; and Raoul, after swaying a second, pitched forward with a sharp cry and rolled to the foot of the glacis.
Dorothea forced herself back in the room, and stood there upright and shook, with Polly beside her holding her two hands.
"They have shot him!"
The two women listened for a moment. All was still now. Polly stepped to the window and, closed it softly.
"But why? What are you doing?" Dorothea asked, in a hoarse whisper.
"They will find quite enough without that," said the practical girl, but her voice quavered.
"Yet if they had seen--Ah, how selfish to think of that now! Hush-- that was a groan! He is alive still."
She moved towards the window, but Polly dragged her back by main force.
Below they heard the sudden unbarring of doors, and Endymion's voice calling for Mudge, the butler. A bell pealed in the servants' hall, stopped, and began ringing again in short and violent jerks.
"Let me go," commanded Dorothea. "They will never find him, under the slope there. He may be bleeding to death. I must tell--"
But Polly clung to her. "They'll find him safe enough, Miss Dorothea. There's Sam, now--hark!--at the backdoor bell: he'll tell them."
"Sam Zeally, Miss."
"But I don't understand," Dorothea stammered; with a sharp suspicion of treachery, she pushed the girl from her. "Was Zeally mounting guard tonight? If I thought--don't tell me it was a trap! Oh, you wicked girl!"
"No; it wasn't," answered Polly, sulkily. "I don't know nothing of Sam's movements. But he might be hanging about the house; and if he saw a man talking to me, he's just as jealous as fire."
She broke off at the sound of voices below the window. The ray of a lantern, as the search-party jolted it, flashed and danced on wall and ceiling of the dim boudoir. A sharp exclamation announced that Raoul was discovered. A confused muttering followed; and then Dorothea heard Endymion's voice calling up to Mudge from the bottom of the trench.
"Run to Miss Westcote's room and tell her we shall require lint and bandages. There is no cause for alarm, assure her; say there has been an accident--a Frenchman overtaken out of bounds and wounded--I think, not seriously. If she be gone to bed, get the medicine chest and the key and bring them into the kitchen."
Dorothea had charge of the Bayfield medicine chest, and kept it in a cupboard of the boudoir. She groped for it, pulled open drawer after drawer, rifled them for lint and linen, and by the time Mudge tapped on the door, stood ready with the chest under one arm and a heap of bandages in the other.
"In the kitchen, Mr. Endymion said. I am coming at once; take the chest, run, and have as many candles lit as possible."
Mudge ran; Dorothea followed--with Polly behind her, trembling like a leaf.
The two women reached the kitchen as the party entered with Raoul, and supported him to a chair beside the dying fire. His face was colourless, and he lay back and closed his eyes weakly as Endymion stooped to examine the wounded leg, with Narcissus in close attendance, and the others standing respectfully apart--Mudge, the two footmen (in their shirt sleeves), an under-gardener named Best, one of the housemaids, and Corporal Zeally by the door in regimentals, with his japanned shako askew and his Brown Bess still in his hand. Behind his shoulder, three or four of the women servants hung about the doorway and peered in, between curiosity and terror.
It was a part of Endymion's fastidiousness that the sight of blood-- that is, of human blood--turned his stomach. In her distress Dorothea could not help admiring how he conquered this aversion; how he knelt in his spick-and-span evening dress, and, after turning back his ruffles, unlaced the prisoner's soaked shoe and rolled down the stocking.
He looked up gratefully as she entered. In such emergencies Narcissus was worse than useless; but Dorothea had the nursing instinct, and her brothers recognised it. The sight of a wound or a hurt steadied her wits, and she became practical and helpful at once.
"A flesh wound only, I think; just above the ankle--the tendon cut, but the bone apparently not broken."
"It may be splintered, though," said Dorothea. "Has anyone thought of sending for Doctor Ibbetson? He must be fetched at once. A towel, please--three or four--from the dresser there." A footman brought the towels. She knelt, folded two on her lap, and, resting Raoul's foot there, drew the stocking gently from the wound. "A basin and warm water, not too hot. Polly, you will find a small sponge in the, second drawer . . ." She nodded towards the medicine chest. "One of you, make up a better fire and set on a fresh kettle . . ."
She gave her orders in a low firm voice, and continued to direct everyone thus, while she sponged the wound and drew off the stocking. Neither towards them nor towards Raoul did she lift her eyes. The bare foot of her beloved rested in her lap. She heard him groan twice, but with no pain inflicted by her fingers; if their slightest pressure had hurt him she would have known. She went on bathing the wound--she, who could have bathed it with her tears. As time passed, and still the doctor did not come, she began to bandage it. She called on Polly for the bandages; then, still without looking up, she divined that Polly was useless--was engaged in trying to catch Zeally's eye, and warn him or get a word with him.
"He's pale as a ghost yet," said Endymion. "Another dose of brandy might set him up. I gave him some from my flask before bringing him in."
"He is not going to faint," she answered.
"Well, I won't bother him with questions until he comes round a bit. You, Zeally, had better step into my room though, and give me your version of the affair."
But as the Corporal saluted and took a step forward, the prisoner opened his eyes.
"Before you examine Zeally, sir, let me save you what trouble I can." He spoke faintly, but with deliberation. "I wish to deny nothing. I was escaping, and he tracked me. He came on me as I cut across the park, and challenged. I did not answer, but ran around a corner of the house and jumped the parapet, thinking to double along the trench there and put him off the scent--at least to dodge the bullet, if he fired. But as I jumped for it, he winged me. A very pretty shot, too. With your leave, sir, I 'd like to shake hands with him on it. Shake hands, Corporal!" Raoul stretched out a hand, sideways. "You're a smart fellow, and no malice between soldiers."
Dorothea heard Polly's gasp: it seemed to her that all the room must hear it. Her own hand trembled on the bandage. She had forgotten her danger--the all but inevitable scandal--until Raoul brought it back to her, and in the same breath saved her by his heroic lie. She could not profit by it, though. Her lips parted to refute it, and for the first time she gazed up at him, her eyes brimming with sudden love, gratitude, pride, even while they entreated against the sacrifice. He was smiling down with an air of faint amusement; yet beneath the lashes she read a command which mastered her will, imposed silence. He had taken on a new manliness, and for the first time in the story of their loves she felt herself dominated by something stronger than passion. He had swept her off her feet, before now, by boyish ardour: her humility, the marvel of being loved, had aided him; but hitherto in her heart she had always felt her own character to be the stronger. Now he challenged her on woman's own ground--that of self-abnegation; he commanded her to his own hurt, he towered above her. She had never dreamed of a love like this. Beaten, despairing for him, yet proud as she had never been in her life, she held her breath.
Corporal Zeally was merely bewildered. His was a deliberate mind and had hatched out the night's catastrophe after incubating it for weeks. Unconvinced by Polly's explanation of her meeting with M. Raoul at the Nursery gate, he had nursed a dull jealousy and set himself to watch, and had dogged his man down at length with the slow cunning of a yokel bred of a line of poachers. Raoul's tribute to his smartness perplexed him and almost he scented a trap.
"Beg your pardon, Squire," he began heavily, forgetting military forms of address, "but the gentleman don't put it right."
"Oh, hang your British modesty!" put in Raoul with a wry laugh. "If it pleases you to represent that the whole thing was accidental and you don't deserve to be promoted sergeant for tonight's work, at least you might respect my vanity."
Polly saw her opportunity. She crossed boldly and made as if to lay over the Corporal's mouth the hand that would fain have boxed his ears. "Reckon this is my affair," she announced, with an effrontery at which one of the footmen guffawed openly. "Be modest as you please, my lad, when I've married 'ee; but I won't put up with modesty from anyone under a sergeant, and that I warn 'ee!"
The Corporal eyed his sweetheart without forgiveness. His mouth was open, but upon the word "sergeant," he shut it again and began to digest the idea.
"You know, of course, sir," Endymion Westcote addressed the prisoner coldly, "to what such a confession commits you? I do not see what other construction the facts admit, but it is so serious in itself and in its consequences that I warn you--"
"I have broken my parole, sir," said Raoul, simply. "Of the temptations you cannot judge. Of the shame I am as profoundly sensible as you can be. The consequences I am ready to suffer."
He sank back in his chair as Dr. Ibbetson entered.
An hour later Dorothea said goodnight to her brother in the great hall. He had lit his candle and was mixing himself a glass of brandy and water.
"The sight of blood--" he excused himself. "I am sorry for the fellow, though I never liked him. I suppose, now, there was nothing between him and that girl Polly? For a moment--from Zeally's manner--" He gulped down the drink. "His confession was honest enough, anyhow. Poor fool! he's safe in hospital for a week, and his friends, if he has any, and they know what it means, will pray for that week to be prolonged."
"What does it mean?" Dorothea managed to ask.
"It means Dartmoor."
Dorothea's candlestick shook in her hand, and the extinguisher fell on the floor. Her brother picked it up and restored it.
"Naturally," he murmured with brotherly concern, "your nerves! It has been a trying night, but you comported yourself admirably, Dorothea. Ibbetson assures me he could not have tied the bandage better himself. I felt proud of my sister." He kissed her gallantly and pulled out his watch. "Past twelve o'clock!--time they were round with the barouche. The sooner we get Master Raoul down to the Infirmary and pack him in bed, the better."
As Dorothea went up the stairs she heard the sound of wheels on the gravel.
She could not accept his sacrifice. No; a way must be found to save him, and in her prayers that night she began to seek it. But while she prayed, her heart was bowed over a great joy. She had a hero for a lover!