St. Ives (Stevenson and Quiller-Couch)/Chapter 36
I GO TO CLAIM FLORA
Behold me now speeding northwards on the wings of love, ballasted by Mr. Romaine. But indeed, that worthy man climbed into the calèche with something less than his habitual gravity. He was obviously and pardonably flushed with triumph. I observed that now and again he smiled to himself in the twilight, or drew in his breath and emitted it with a martial pouf! And when he began to talk—which he did as soon as we were clear of the Saint Denis barrier—the points of the family lawyer were untrussed. He leaned back in the calèche with the air of a man who had subscribed to the Peace of Europe and dined well on top of it. He criticised the fortifications with a wave of his toothpick, and discoursed derisively and at large on the Emperor's abdication, on the treachery of the Duke of Ragusa, on the prospects of the Bourbons, and on the character of M. Talleyrand, with anecdotes which made up in raciness for what they lacked in authenticity.
We were bowling through La Chapelle when he pulled out his snuff-box and proffered it.
"You are silent, Mr. Anne."
"I was waiting for the chorus," said I. "'Rule, Britannia! Britannia rules the waves: and Britons never, never, never—' Come, out with it!"
"Well," he retorted, "and I hope the tune will come natural to you before long."
"O, give me time, my dear sir! I have seen the Cossacks enter Paris, and the Parisians decorate their poodles with the Cross of the Legion of Honour. I have seen them hoist a wretch on the Vendôme Column to smite the bronze face of the man of Austerlitz. I have seen the salle of the Opera rise to applaud a blatant fat fellow singing the praises of the Prussian—and to the tune of 'Vive Henri Quatre!' I have seen, in my cousin Alain, of what the best blood in France is capable. Also I have seen peasant boys—unripe crops of the later levies—mown down by grape-shot, raise themselves on their elbows to cheer for France and the little man in gray. In time, Mr. Romaine, no doubt my memory will confuse these lads with their betters, and their mothers with the ladies of the salle de l'opera, just as in time, no doubt, I shall find myself Justice of the Peace and Deputy Lieutenant of the shire of Buckingham. I am changing my country, as you remind me, and, on my faith, she has no place for me. But for the sake of her I have explored and found the best of her—in my new country's prisons. And I repeat, you must give me time."
"Tut, tut!" was his comment, as I searched for tinderbox and sulphur match to relight my cigar. "We must get you into Parliament, Mr. Anne. You have the gift."
As we approached Saint Denis the flow of his discourse sensibly slackened, and, a little beyond, he pulled his travelling-cap over his ears and settled down to slumber. I sat wide-awake beside him. The spring night had a touch of chill in it, and the breath of our horses streaming back upon the lamps of the calèche kept a constant nimbus between me and the postilions. Above it, and over the black spires of the poplar avenues, the regiments of stars moved in parade. My gaze went up to the ensign of their noiseless evolutions, to the pole-star, and to Cassiopeia swinging beneath it, low in the north, over my Flora's pillow—my pole-star and journey's end.
Under this soothing reflection I composed myself to slumber, and awoke, to my surprise and annoyance, in a miserable flutter of the nerves. And this fretfulness increased with the hours, so that from Amiens to the coast Mr. Romaine must have had the devil of a time with me. I bolted my meals at the way-houses, chafing all the while at the business of the relays. I popped up and down in the calèche like a shot on a hot shovel. I cursed our pace. I girded at the lawyer's snuff-box and could have called him out upon Calais sands, when we reached them, to justify his vile, methodical use of it. By good fortune we arrived to find the packet ready with her warps, and bundled ourselves on board in a hurry. We sought separate cabins for the night, and in mine, as in a sort of moral bath, the drastic cross seas of the Channel cleansed me of my irritable humour and left me like a rag beaten and hung on a clothes-line to the winds of heaven.
In the grey of the morning we disembarked at Dover, and here Mr. Romaine had prepared a surprise for me. For as we drew to the shore and the throng of porters and waterside loafers, on what should my gaze alight but the beaming countenance of Mr. Rowley! I declare it communicated a roseate flush to the pallid cliffs of Albion. I could have fallen on his neck. On his side the honest lad kept touching his hat and grinning in a speechless ecstasy. As he confessed to me later, "It was either hold my tongue, sir, or call for three cheers." He snatched my valise and ushered us through the crowed to our hotel breakfast. And it seemed he must have filled up his time at Dover with trumpetings of our importance, for the landlord welcomed us on the perron, obsequiously cringing. We entered in a respectful hush that might have flattered His Grace of Wellington himself; and the waiters, I believe, would have gone on all fours but for the difficulty of reconciling that posture with efficient service. I knew myself at last for a Personage; a great English landowner, and did my best to command the mien proper to that tremendous class when, the meal despatched, we passed out between the bowing ranks to the door where our chaise stood ready.
"But hullo!" said I at sight of it, and my eye sought Rowley's.
"Begging your pardon, sir, but I took it on myself to order the colour, and hoping it wasn't a liberty."
"Claret and invisible green—a duplicate, but for a bullet-hole wanting."
"Which I didn't like to go so far on my own hook, Mr. Anne."
"We fight under the old colours, my lad."
"And walk in and win this time, sir, strike me lucky!"
While we bowled along the first stage towards London—Mr. Romaine and I within the chaise and Rowley perched upon the dickey—I told the lawyer of our progress from Aylesbury to Kirkby-Lonsdale. He took snuff.
"Forsitan et hæc olim—that Rowley of yours seems a good-hearted lad, and less of a fool than he looks. The next time I have to travel post with an impatient lover I'll take a leaf out of his book and buy me a flageolet."
"Sir, it was ungrateful of me——"
"Tut, tut, Mr. Anne. I was fresh from my little triumph, that is all, and perhaps would have felt the better for a word of approbation—a little pat on the back, as I may say. It is not often that I have felt the need of it—twice or thrice in my life, perhaps; not often enough to justify my anticipating your example and seeking a wife betimes, for that is a man's one chance if he wants another to taste his success."
"And yet I dare swear you rejoice in mine, unselfishly enough."
"Why, no, sir; your cousin would have sent me to the right-about within a week of his succession. Still, I own to you that he offended something at least as deep as self-interest; the sight and scent of him habitually turned my gorge; whereas"—and he inclined to me with a dry smile—"your unwisdom at least was amiable, and—in short, sir, though you can be infernally provoking, it has been a pleasure to serve you."
You may be sure that this did not lessen my contrition. We reached London late that night, and here Mr. Romaine took leave of us. Business waited for him at Amersham Place. After a few hours' sleep, Rowley woke me to choose between two post-boys in blue jackets and white hats and two in buff jackets and black hats, who were competing for the honour of conveying us as far as Barnet, and having decided in favour of the blue-and-white, and solaced the buff-and-black with a pourboire, we pushed forward once more.
We were now upon the Great North Road, along which the York mail rolled its steady ten miles an hour, to the wafted music of the guard's bugle—a rate of speed which, to the more Dorian mood of Mr. Rowley's flageolet, I proposed to better by one-fifth. But first, having restored the lad to his old seat beside me, I must cross-question him upon his adventures in Edinburgh and the latest news of Flora and her aunt, Mr. Robbie, Mrs. McRankine, and the rest of my friends. It came out that Mr. Rowley's surrender to my dear girl had been both instantaneous and complete. "She is a floorer, Mr. Anne. I suppose now, sir, you'll be standing up for that knock-me-down kind of thing?"
"Explain yourself, my lad."
"Beg your pardon, sir, what they call love at first sight." He wore an ingenuous blush and an expression at once shy and insinuating.
"The poets, Rowley, are on my side."
"Mrs. McRankine, sir——"
"The Queen of Navarre, Mr. Rowley——"
But he so far forgot himself as to interrupt—"It took Mrs. McRankine years, sir, to get used to her first husband. She told me so."
"It took us some days, if I remember, to get used to Mrs. McRankine. To be sure, her cooking——"
"That's what I say, Mr. Anne; it's more than skin-deep. And you'll hardly believe me, sir—that is, if you didn't take note of it—but she hev got an ankle."
He had produced the pieces of his flageolet and was adjusting them nervously, with a face red as a turkey-cock's wattles. I regarded him with a new and incredulous amusement. That I served Mr. Rowley for a glass of fashion and a mould of form was, of course, no new discovery, and the traditions of body-service allow, nay, enjoin, that when the gentleman goes a-wooing the valet shall take a sympathetic wound. What, too, could be more natural than that a gentleman of sixteen should select a lady of fifty for his first essay in the tender passion. Still—Bethiah McRankine!
I kept my countenance with an effort. "Mr. Rowley," said I, "if music be the food of love, play on." And Mr. Rowley gave "The Girl I Left Behind Me," shyly at first, but anon with terrific expression. He broke off with a slight "Heigho!" in fact, said Rowley, and started off again, while I tapped out the time, and hummed:
"But now I'm bound for Brighton camp—^
Kind heaven then pray guide me,
And send me safely back again
To the Girl I left behind me!"
So with the chaise windows open to the vigorous airs of spring, and my own breast like a window flung wide to youth and health and happy expectations, I rattled home wards; impatient as a lover should be, yet not too impatient to taste the humour of spinning like a lord, with a pocketful of money, along the road which the ci-devant M. Champdivers had so fearfully dodged and skirted in Burchell Fenn's covered cart.
And yet so impatient, that when we galloped over the Calton Hill and down into Edinburgh by the new London road, with the wind in our faces and a sense of April in it, brisk and jolly, I must pack off Rowley to our lodgings with the valises, and stay only for a wash and breakfast at Dumbreck's before posting on to Swanston alone.
"Whene'er my steps return that way,
Still faithful shall she find me.
And never more again I'll stray
From the Girl I left behind me."
Where the gables of the cottage rose into view over the hill's shoulder I dismissed my driver and walked forward, whistling the tune: but fell silent as I came under the lee of the garden wall, and sought for the exact spot of my old escalade. I found it by the wide beechen branches over the road, and hoisted myself noiselessly up to the coping, where, as before, they screened me—or would have screened me had I cared to wait.
But I did not care to wait; and why? Because, not fifteen yards from me she stood!—she, my Flora, my goddess, bare-headed, swept by chequers of morning sunshine and green shadows, with the dew on her sandal shoes and the lap of her morning gown appropriately heaped with flowers—with tulips, scarlet, yellow, and striped. And confronting her, with his back towards me and a remembered patch between the armholes of his stable-waistcoat, Robie the gardener rested both hands on his spade and expostulated.
"But I like to pick my tulips leaves and all, Robie!"
"Aweel, miss; it's clean ruinin' the bulbs, that's all I say to you."
And that was all I waited to hear. As he bent over and resumed his digging I shook a branch of the beech with both hands and set it swaying. She heard the rustle and glanced up and, spying me, uttered a gasping little cry.
"What ails ye, miss?" Robie straightened himself instanter; but she had whipped right-about face and was gazing towards the kitchen garden:
"Isn't that a child among the arti—the strawberry-beds, I mean?"
He cast down his spade and ran. She turned, let the tulips fall at her feet, and, ah! her second cry of gladness, and her heavenly blush as she stretched out both arms to me. It was all happening over again—with the difference that now my arms too were stretched out.
"Journeys end in lovers meeting,
Every wise man's son doth know. . ."
Robie had run a dozen yards perhaps, when either the noise I made in scrambling off the wall, or some recollection of having been served in this way before, brought him to a halt. At any rate he turned round, and just in time to witness our embrace.
"The good Lord behear!" he exclaimed, stood stock-still for a moment, and waddled off at top speed towards the back door.
"We must tell Aunt at once! She will—why, Anne, where are you going?" She caught my sleeve.
"To the hen-house, to be sure," said I.
A moment later, with peals of happy laughter we had taken hands and were running along the garden alleys towards the house. And I remember, as we ran, finding it somewhat singular that this should be the first time I had ever invaded Swanston Cottage by way of the front door.
We came upon Mrs. Gilchrist in the breakfast-room. A pile of linen lay on the horse-hair sofa, and the good lady, with a measuring-tape in one hand and a pair of scissors in the other, was walking around Ronald, who stood on the hearthrug in a very manly attitude. She regarded me over her gold-rimmed spectacles, and, shifting the scissors into her left hand, held out her right.
"H'm," said she; "I give ye good-morning, Mosha. And what might you be wanting of us this time?"
"Madam," I answered, "hat I hope, is fairly evident."
Ronald came forward. "I congratulate yon, Saint-Yves, with all my heart. And you may congratulate me: I have my commission."
"Nay, then," said I, "let me rather congratulate France that the war is over. Seriously, my dear fellow, I wish you joy. What's the regiment?"
"Chevenix is a decent fellow. He has behaved very well, indeed he has."
"Very well indeed," said Flora nodding her head.
"He has the knack. But if you expect me to like him any the better for it——"
"Major Chevenix," put in Miss Gilchrist, in her most rhadamanthine voice, "always sets me in mind of a pair of scissors." She opened and shut the pair in her hand, and I had to confess that the stiff and sawing action was admirably illustrative.
"But I wish to heaven, madam," thought I, "you could have chosen another simile!"
In the evening of that beatific day I walked back to Edinburgh by some aerial and rose-clouded path not indicated on the maps. It led somehow to my lodgings, and my feet touched earth when the door was opened to me by Bethiah McRankine.
"But where is Rowley?" I asked a moment later, looking round my sitting-room.
Mrs. McRankine smiled sardonically. "Him? He came back rolling his eyes so that I guessed him to be troubled in the wind. And he's in bed this hour past with a spoonful of peppermint in his little wame."
And here I may ring down the curtain upon the adventures of Anne de Saint-Yves.
Flora and I were married early in June, and had been settled for little over six months amid the splendours of Amersham Place when news came of the Emperor's escape from Elba. Throughout the consequent alarums and excursions of the Hundred Days (as M. de Chambord named them for us) I have to confess that the Vicomte Anne sat still and warmed his hands at the domestic hearth. To be sure, Napoleon had been my master, and I had no love for the cocarde blanche. But here was I, an Englishman, already in legal but inaccurate phrase, a "naturalised" one, having, as Mr. Romaine put it, a stake in the country, not to speak of a growing interest in its game-laws and the local administration of justice. In short, here was a situation to tickle a casuist. It did not, I may say, tickle me in the least, but played the mischief with my peace. If you, my friends, having weighed the pro and contra, would have counselled inaction, possibly allowing for the hébetudé de foyer and the fact that Flora was soon to become a mother, you might have predicted it. At any rate, I sat still and read the newspapers; and on the top of them came a letter from Ronald, announcing that the 4th had their marching, or rather their sailing, orders, and that within a week his boat would rock by the pier of Leith to convey him and his comrades to join the Duke of Wellington's forces in the Low Countries. Forthwith, nothing would suit my dear girl but we must post to Edinburgh to bid him farewell—in a chariot, this time, with a box seat for her maid and Mr, Rowley. We reached Swanston in time for Ronald to spend the eve of his departure with us at the cottage; and very gallant the boy looked in his scarlet uniform, which he wore for the ladies' benefit, and which (God forgive us men!) they properly bedewed with their tears.
Early next morning we drove over to the city and drew up in the thick of the crowd gathered at the foot of the Castle Hill to see the 4th march out. We had waited half an hour, perhaps, when we heard two thumps of a drum and the first notes of the regimental quick-step sounded within the walls; the sentry at the outer gate stepped back and presented arms, and the ponderous archway grew bright with the red coats and brazen instruments of the band. The farewells on their side had been said; and the inexorable tramp-tramp upon the drawbridge was the burthen of their answer to the waving handkerchiefs, the huzzas of the citizens, the cries of the women. On they came, and in the first rank, behind the band, rose Major Chevenix. He saw us, flushed a little, and gravely saluted. I never liked the man; but will admit he made a fine figure there. And I pitied him a little; for while his eyes rested on Flora, hers wandered to the rear of the third company, where Ensign Ronald Gilchrist marched beside the tattered colours, with chin held high and a high colour on his young cheeks and a lip that quivered as he passed us.
"God bless you, Ronald!"
"Left wheel!" The band and the Major riding behind it swung round the corner into North Bridge Street; the rear rank and the adjutant behind it passed up the Lawn-market. Our driver was touching up his horses to follow, when Flora's hand stole into mine. And I turned from my own conflicting thoughts to comfort her.