The Westcotes by Arthur Quiller-Couch
Chapter IX. Dorothea Confesses
She saw no more of him, and heard very little, before the Court Martial met. No one acquainted with the code of that age--so strait-laced in its proprieties, so full-blooded in its vices--will need to be told that she never dreamed of asking her brother's permission to visit the Prisoners' Infirmary. He reported--once a day, perhaps, and casually-- that the patient was doing well. Dorothea ventured once to sound General Rochambeau, but the old aristocrat answered stiffly that he took no interest in declasses, and plainly hinted that, in his judgment, M. Raoul had sinned past pardon; which but added to her remorse. From time to time she obtained some hearsay news through Polly; but Polly's chief interest now lay in her approaching marriage.
For the Commissary, while accepting Raoul's version of his capture, had an intuitive gift which saved him from wholly believing in it. Indeed, his conduct of the affair, if we consider the extent of his knowledge, was nothing less than masterly. Corporal Zeally found himself a sergeant within forty-eight hours, and within an hour of the announcement he and Polly were given an audience in the Bayfield library, with the result that Parson Milliton cried their banns in Axcester Church on the following Sunday, and the bride-elect received a month's wages and three weeks' notice of dismissal, with a hint that the reason for her short retention--to instruct her successor in Miss Dorothea's ways--was ostensible rather than real. With Raoul's fate he declined to meddle. "Here," he said in effect, "is my report, including the prisoner's confession. I do my simple duty in presenting it. But the young man was captured in my grounds; he was known to be a protege of my brother's. Finding him wounded and faint with loss of blood, we naturally did our best for him, and this again renders me perhaps too sympathetic. The law is the law, however, and must take its course." No attitude could have been more proper or have shown better feeling.
So Raoul, who made a rapid recovery--barring the limp which he carried to the end of his days--was tried, condemned, and sentenced in the space of two hours. He stuck to his story, and the court had no alternative. Dartmoor or Stapleton inevitably awaited the prisoner who broke parole and was retaken. The night after his sentence Raoul was marched past the Bayfield gates under escort for Dartmoor. And Dorothea had not intervened.
This, of course, proves that she was of no heroical fibre. She knew it. Night after night she had lain awake, vainly contriving plans for his deliverance; and either she lacked inventiveness or was too honest, for no method could she discover which avoided confession of the simple truth. As the days passed without catastrophe and without news save that her lover was bettering in hospital, she staved off the truth, trusting that the next night would bring inspiration. Almost she hoped--being quite unwise in such matters--that his sufferings would be accepted as cancelling his offence. So she played the coward. The blow fell on the evening when Endymion announced, in casual tones, that the Court Martial was fixed for the day after next.
That night, indeed, brought something like an inspiration; and on the morrow she rode into Axcester and called upon Polly, now a bride of six days' standing and domiciled in one of the Westcote cottages in Church Street, a little beyond the bridge. For a call of state this was somewhat premature, but it might pass.
Polly appeared to think it premature. Her furniture was topsy-turvy, and her hair in curl-papers; she obviously did not expect visitors, and resented this curtailment of the honeymoon. She showed it even when Dorothea, after apologies, came straight to the point:
"Polly, I am very unhappy."
"You know that I must be, since M. Raoul is going to that horrible war-prison rather than let the truth be known."
"But since you didn't encourage him, Miss--"
"Of course I didn't encourage him to come," said Dorothea, quickly.
"Why then it was his own fault, and he broke his word by breaking bounds."
"Yes, strictly his parole was broken; but the meaning of parole is, that a prisoner promises to make no attempt to escape. M. Raoul never dreamed of escaping, yet that is the ground of his punishment."
"Well," said Polly, "if he chooses to say he was escaping, I don't see how we--I mean, how you--can help."
"Why, by telling the truth; and that's what we ought to do, though it was wrong of him to expose us to it."
"To be sure it was," Polly assented.
"But," urged Dorothea, "couldn't we tell the truth of what happened without anyone's wanting to know more? He gave you a note, which you took without guessing what it contained. He wished to have speech with me. Before you could give me the note and I could refuse to see him-- as I should certainly have done--he had arrived. His folly deserves punishment, but no such punishment as being sent to Dartmoor."
Polly eyed her ex-mistress shrewdly.
"Have you burnt the note?" she asked.
Dorothea, blushing to the roots of her hair, stammered:
"No; I kept it--it was evidence for him, you see. I wish, now--"
She broke off as Polly nodded her head.
"I guessed you'd have kept it. And now you'll never make up your mind to burn it. You're too honest."
"But, surely the note itself would not be called for?"
"I don't know. Folks ask curious questions in courts of law, I've always heard. Beggin' your pardon, Miss, but your face tells too many tales, and anyone but a fool would ask for that note before he'd been dealing with you three minutes. If he didn't, he'd ask you what was in it. And then you'd be forced to tell lies--which you couldn't, to save your soul!"
Dorothea knew this to be true. She reflected a moment. "I should decline to show it, or to answer."
Mrs. Zeally thought it about time to assert herself. "Very good, Miss. And now, how about me? They'd ask me questions, too; and I'd have you consider, Miss Dorothea, that though not shaken down to it yet--not, as you might say, in a state to expect callers or make them properly welcome--I'm a respectable married woman. I don't mind confessing to you, Zeally isn't a comfortable man. He's pleased enough to be sergeant, though he don't quite know how it came about; and he's that sullen with brooding over it, that for sixpence he'd give me the strap to ease his feelings. I ain't complaining. Mr. Endymion chose to take me on the hop and hurry up the banns, and I'm going to accommodate myself to the man. He's three-parts of a fool, and you needn't fear but I'll manage him. But I ain't for taking no risks, and that I tell you fair."
Dorothea was stunned. "You don't mean to say that Zeally suspects you?"
"Why, of course he does!" said Polly. Prudence urged her to repeat that Zeally was three-parts of a fool; but, being nettled, she spoke the words uppermost: "Who d'ee think he'd suspect?"
Dorothea, however, was too desperately dejected to feel the prick of this shaft. "You will not help me, then?" was all her reply to it.
"Why, no, Miss! if you put it in that point-blank way. A married woman's got to think of her reputation first of all."
Polly's attitude might be selfish, unfeeling; but the fundamental incapacity for gratitude in girls of Polly's class will probably surprise and pain their mistresses until the end of the world. After all, Polly was right. An attempt to clear Raoul by telling the superficial truth must involve terrible risks, and might at any turn enforce a choice between full confession and falsehood.
Dorothea could not bring herself to lie, even heroically; and there would be no heroism in lying to save herself. On the other hand, the thought of a forced confession--it might he before a tribunal--was too hideous. No, the suggestion had been a mad one, and Polly had rightly thrown cold water on it. Also, it had demanded too much of Polly, who could not be expected to jeopardise her matrimonial prospects to right a wrong for which she was not in truth responsible.
Dorothea loved a hero, but knew she was no heroine. She called herself a pitiful coward--unjustly, because, nurtured as she had been on the proprieties, surrounded all her days by men and women of a class most sensitive to public opinion, who feared the breath of scandal worse than a plague, confession for her must mean a shame unspeakable. What! Admit that she, Dorothea Westcote, had loved a French prisoner almost young enough to be her son! that she had given him audience at night! that he had been shot and captured beneath her window!
Unjustly, too, she accused herself, because it is the decision, not the terror felt in deciding, which distinguishes the brave from the cowardly. If you doubt the event with Dorothea, the fault, must be mine. She was timid, but she came of a race which will endure anything rather than the conscious anguish of doing wrong.
Nor, had her conscience needed them, did it lack reminders. Narcissus had been persuaded to send the drawings to London to be treated by lithography, a process of which he knew nothing, but to which M. Raoul, during his studies in Paris, had given much attention, and apparently not without making some discoveries--unimportant perhaps, and such as might easily reward an experimenter in an art not well past its infancy. At any rate, he had drawn up elaborate instructions for the London firm of printers, and when the proofs arrived with about a third of these instructions neglected and another third misunderstood, Narcissus was at his wits' end, aghast at the poorness of the impressions, yet not knowing in the least how to correct them.
He gave Dorothea no peace with them. Evening after evening she was invited to pore upon the drawings over which she and her lover had bent together; to criticise here and offer a suggestion there; while every line revived a memory, inflicted a pang. What suggestion could she find save the one which must not be spoken?--to send, fetch the artist back from Dartmoor, and remedy all this, with so much beside!
"But," urged Narcissus, "you and he spent hours together. I quite understood that he had explained the process to you, and on the strength of this I gave it too little attention. Of course, if one could have foreseen--" He broke off, and added with some testiness: "I'd give fifty pounds to have the fellow back, if only for ten minutes' talk."
"But why couldn't we?" Dorothea asked suddenly, breathlessly.
They were alone by the table under the bookcase. On the far side of the hall, before the fire, Endymion dozed after a long day with the partridges. Narcissus's words awoke a wild hope.
"But why couldn't we?" she repeated, her voice scarcely louder than a whisper.
"Well, that's an idea!" he chuckled. "Confound the fellow, he imposed on all of us! If we had only guessed what he intended, we might have signed a petition telling him how necessary he had made himself, and imploring him, for our sakes, to behave like a gentleman."
"But supposing--supposing he was innocent--that he had never meant--" She put out a hand to lay it on her brother's. "Hush!" she could have cried; but it was too late.
"Endymion!" Narcissus called across the room, jocosely.
"Eh! What is it?" Endymion came out of his doze.
"We're in a mess with these drawings, a complete mess; and we want Master Raoul fetched out of Dartmoor to set us right. Come now--as Commissary, what'll you take to work it for us? Fifty pounds has already been offered."
Dorothea turned from the table with a sigh for her lost chance.
"He'd like it," answered Endymion, grimly. "But, my dear fellow,"-- he slewed himself in his chair for a look around the hall,--"pray moderate your tones. I particularly deprecate levity on such matters within possible hearing of the servants; that class of person never understands a joke."
Narcissus rubbed the top of his head--a trick of his in perplexity.
"But, seriously: it has only this moment occurred to me. Couldn't the drawings be conveyed to him, in due form, through the Commandant of the Prison? The poor fellow owes us no grudge. I believe he would be eager to do us this small service. And, really, they have made such a mess of the stones--"
"Impossible! Out of the question! And I may say now, and once for all, that the mention of that unhappy youth is repugnant to me. By good fortune, we escaped being compromised by him; and I have refrained from reminding you that your patronage of him was, to say the least, indiscreet."
"God bless me! You don't suggest, I hope, that I encouraged him to escape!"
"I suggest nothing. But I am honestly glad to be quit of him, and take some satisfaction in remembering that I detested the fellow from the first. He had too much cleverness with his bad style, or, if you prefer it, was sufficiently like a gentleman to be dangerous. Pah! For his particular offence, I would have had the old hulks maintained in the Hamoaze, with all their severities; as it is, the posturer may find Dartmoor pretty stiff, but will yet have the consolation of herding with his betters."
Strangely enough this speech did more to fix Dorothea's resolve than all she had read or heard of the rigours of the war-prison. Gently reared though she was, physical suffering seemed to her less intolerable than to be unjustly held in this extreme of scorn.. This was the deeper wrong; and putting herself in her lover's place, feeling with his feelings, she knew it to be by far the deeper. In Dartmoor he shared the sufferings of men unfortunate but not despicable, punished for fighting in their country's cause. But here was a moral punishment, deserved by none but the vilest; and she had helped to bring it--was allowing it to rest--upon a hero!
In the long watches of that night it never occurred to her that the brutality of her brother's contempt was over-done. And Endymion, not given to self-questioning at any time, was probably unconscious of a dull wrath revenging itself for many pin-pricks of Master Raoul's clever tongue. Endymion Westcote, like many pompous men, usually hurt somebody when he indulged in a joke, and for this cause, perhaps, had a nervous dislike of wit in others. Dull in taking a jest, but almost preternaturally clever in suspecting one, he had disliked Raoul's sallies in proportion as they puzzled him. The remembrance of them rankled, and this had been his bull-roar of revenge.
He spent the next morning in his office; and returning at three in the afternoon, retired to the library to draw up the usual monthly report required of him as Commissary. He had been writing tor an hour or more, when Dorothea tapped at the door and entered.
Endymion did not observe her pallor; indeed, he scarcely looked up.
"Ah! You have come for a book? Make as little noise, then, as possible, that's a good soul. You interrupted me in a column of figures."
He began to add them up afresh, tapping the table with the fingers of his left hand, as his custom was when counting. Dorothea waited. The addition made, he entered it, resting three shapely finger-tips on the table's edge for the number to be carried over.
"I wish to speak with you particularly."
He laid down his pen resignedly. Her voice was urgent, and he knew well enough that the occasion must be urgent when Dorothea interrupted his work.
"It--it's about M. Raoul."
His eyebrows went up, but only to contract again upon a magisterial frown.
"Really, after the request I was obliged to make to Narcissus last night--you were present, I believe? Is it possible that I failed to make plain my distaste?"
"Ah, but listen! It is no question of distaste, but of a great wrong. He was not trying to escape; he told you an untruth, to--to save--"
Endymion had picked up a paper-knife, and leaned back, tapping his teeth with it.
"Do you know?" he said, "I suspected something of this kind from the first, though I had no idea you shared the knowledge. Zeally's cleverness struck me as a trifle too--ah--phenomenal for belief. I scented some low intrigue; and Polly's dismissal may indicate my pretty shrewd guess at the culprit."
"But it was not Polly!"
Endymion sat bolt upright.
"You must not blame Polly. It was I whom M. Raoul came to see that night."
He stared at her, incredulous.
"My dear Dorothea, are you quite insane?"
"He wished to see me--to speak with me; he gave the girl a note for me. I knew nothing about it until I went upstairs that night, and found her at the boudoir window. M. Raoul was outside. He had arrived before she could deliver the message."
"Quite so!" with a nasally derisive laugh. "And you really need me to point out how prettily those turtles were befooling you?"
"Indeed, no; it was not that."
He struck the table impatiently with the paper-knife.
"My dear woman, do exert some common sense! What in the name of wonder could the fellow have to discuss with you at that hour? Your pardon if, finding no apparent limits to your innocence, I assume it to be illimitable, and point out that he would scarcely break bounds and play Romeo beneath the window of a middle-aged lady for the purpose of discussing water-colours with her, or the exploits of Vespasian."
The taunt brought red to Dorothea's cheeks, and stung her into courage.
"He came to see me," she persisted. Her voice dropped a little. "I had come to feel a regard for M. Raoul; and he--" She could not go on. Her eyes met her brother's for a moment, then fell before them.
What she expected she could not tell. Certainly she did not expect what happened, and his sudden laughter smote her like a whip. It broke in a shout of high, incontrollable mirth, and he leaned back and shook in his chair until the tears streamed down his cheeks.
"You!" he gasped. "You! Oh, oh, oh!"
She stood beneath the scourge, silent. She felt it curl across and bite the very flesh, and thought it was killing her, Her bosom heaved.
It ceased. He sat upright again, wiping his eyes.
"But it's incredible!" he protested; "the scoundrel has fooled you all along. Yes, of course," he pondered; "that explains the success of the trick, which otherwise was clumsy beyond belief; in fact, its clumsiness puzzled me. But how was I to guess?" He pulled himself up on the edge of another guffaw. "Look here, Dorothea, be sensible. It's clear as daylight the fellow was after Polly, and made you his cats- paw. Face it, my dear; face it, and conquer your illusions. I understand it must cost you some suffering, but, after all, you must find some blame in yourself--in your heart, I mean, not in your conduct. Doubtless your conduct showed weakness, or he would never have dared--but, there, I can trust my sister. Face it; the thing's absurd! You, a woman of thirty-eight (or is it thirty-nine?), and he, if I may judge from appearances, young enough to be your son! Polly was his game--the deceitful little slut! You must see it for yourself. And after all, it's more natural. Immoral, I've no doubt--"
He paused in the middle of his harangue. A parliamentary candidate (unsuccessful) for Axcester had once dared to poke fun at Endymion Westcote for having asserted, in a public speech, that indecency was worse than immorality. For the life of him Endymion could never see where the joke came in; but the fellow had illustrated it with such a wealth of humorous instances, and had kept his ignorant audience for twenty minutes in such fits of laughter, that he never afterwards approached the antithesis but he skirted it with a red face.
The scourge might cut into her heart; it could not reach the image of Raoul she shielded there. She knew her lover too well, and that he was incapable of this baseness. But the injurious charge, diverted from him, fell upon her own defences, and, breaking them, let in the cruel light at length on her passion, her folly. This was how the world would see it. . . . Yes! Raoul was right--there is no enemy comparable with Time. Looks, fortune, birth, breed, unequal hearts and minds--all these Love may confound and play with; but Time which divides the dead from the living, sets easily between youth and age a gulf which not only forbids love but derides:
Age, I do abhor thee; Youth, I do adore thee; O, my Love, my Love is young!
She could give counsel, sympathy, care; could delight in his delights, hope in his hopes, melt with his woes, and, having wept a little, find comfort for them. She could thrill at his footsteps, blush at his salutation, sit happily beside him and talk or be silent, reading his moods. He might fill her waking day, haunt her dreams, in the end pass into prison for her sake, having crowned love with martyrdom. And the world would laugh as Endymion had laughed! Her hands went up to shut out the roar of it. A coarse amour with Polly--that could be understood. Polly was young. Polly . . .
"What will you do?" she heard herself asking, and could scarcely believe the voice belonged to her.
"Do? Why, if my theory be right--and I hope I've convinced you--I see no use in meddling. The girl is respectably married. It will cause her quite unnecessary trouble if we rip this affair open again. Her husband will have just ground for complaint, and it might--I need not point out--be a little awkward, eh?"
For the first time in her life Dorothea regarded her brother with something like contempt. But the flash gave way to a look of weary resolve.
"Then I must tell the truth--to others," she said.
It confounded him for a moment. But although here was a new Dorothea, belying all experience, his instinct for handling men and women told him at once what had happened. He had driven her too far. He was even clever enough to foresee that winning her back to obedience would be a ticklish, almost desperate, business; and even sensitive enough to redden at his blunder.
"You do not agree with my view?" he asked, tapping the table slowly.
"I disbelieve it. I have no right to believe it, even if I had the power. He is in prison. You must help me to set him free. If not--"
"He cannot, possibly return to Axcester."
"Oh, what is that to me?" she cried with sudden impatience. Then her tone fell back to its dull level. "I have not been pleading for myself."
"No, no: I understand." His brow cleared, as a man's who faces a bad business and resolves to go through with it. "Well, there is only one way to spare you and everyone. We must get him a cartel."
"Yes--get him exchanged, and sent home to his friends. The War Office owes me something, and will no doubt oblige me in a small affair like this without asking questions. Oh, certainly it can be managed. I will write at once."