In theory—such was the routine—Raoul remained one of the Axcester contingent of prisoners, and all reports concerning him must pass through the Commissary’s hands. In the last week of October, when brother and sister daily expected the cartel, arrived a report that the prisoner was in hospital with a sharp attack of pleurisy. Major Sotheby added a private note:-
"I feared yesterday that the exchange would come too late for him; but to-day the Medical Officer, who has just left me, speaks hopefully. I have no doubt, however, that a winter in this climate would be fatal. The fellow’s lungs are breaking down, and even if they could stand the fogs, the cold must finish him."
Dorothea stood by a window in the library when Endymion read this out to her; the very window through which she had been gazing that spring morning when Raoul first kissed her. To-day the first of the winter’s snow fell gently, persistently, out of a leaden and windless sky.
She turned. “I must go to him,” she said.
“But to what purpose—”
“Oh, you may trust me!”
“My dear girl, that was not in my mind.” He spoke gently. “But until the warrant arrives—”
“We will give it until to-morrow; by every account it should reach us to-morrow. You shall take it with me. I must see him once more; only once—in your presence, if you wish.”
Next morning they rode into the town together, an hour before the mail’s arrival. Endymion alighted at the Town House to write a business letter or two before strolling down to the post office. Dorothea cantered on to the top of the hill, and then walked Mercury to and fro, while she watched the taller rise beyond. The snow had ceased falling; but a crisp north wind skimmed the drifts and powdered her dark habit.
Twice she pulled out her watch; but the coach was up to time in spite of the heavy roads; and as it topped the rise she reined Mercury to the right-about and cantered back to await it. Already the street had begun to fill as usual; and, as usual, there was General Rochambeau picking his way along the pavement to present himself for the Admiral’s letter—the letter which never arrived.
Would her letter never arrive?
He halted on the kerb by her stirrup. She asked after the Admiral’s health.
“Ah, Mademoiselle, if ever he leaves his bed again, it will be a miracle.”
She was not listening. Age, age again!—it makes all the difference. Here came the coach—did it hold a letter for Raoul? Raoul was young.
The coach rolled by with less noise than usual, on the carpet of snow churned brown with traffic. As it passed, the guard lifted his horn and blew cheerily. She followed, telling herself it was a good omen. During the long wait outside the post office she rebuked herself more than once for building a hope upon it. Name after name was called, and at each call a prisoner pushed forward to the doorway for his letter. She caught sight of the General on the outskirts of the crowd. Her brother would not come out until every letter had been distributed.