Rebecca Chapter 3

I wonder what my life would be today, if Mrs. Van Hopper had not been a snob.

Funny to think that the course of my existence hung like a thread upon that quality of hers. Her curiosity was a disease, almost a mania. At first I had been shocked, wretchedly embarrassed; I would feel like a whipping boy who must bear his master’s pains when I watched people laugh behind her back, leave a room hurriedly upon her entrance, or even vanish behind a Service door on the corridor upstairs. For many years now she had come to the Hôtel Côte d’Azur, and, apart from bridge, her one pastime which was notorious by now in Monte Carlo, was to claim visitors of distinction as her friends had she but seen them once at the other end of the post office. Somehow she would manage to introduce herself, and before her victim had scented danger she had proffered an invitation to her suite. Her method of attack was so downright and sudden that there was seldom opportunity to escape. At the Côte d’Azur she staked a claim upon a certain sofa in the lounge, midway between the reception hall and the passage to the restaurant, and she would have her coffee there after luncheon and dinner, and all who came and went must pass her by. Sometimes she would employ me as a bait to draw her prey, and, hating my errand, I would be sent across the lounge with a verbal message, the loan of a book or paper, the address of some shop or other, the sudden discovery of a mutual friend. It seemed as though notables must be fed to her, much as invalids are spooned their jelly; and though titles were preferred by her, any face once seen in a social paper served as well. Names scattered in a gossip column, authors, artists, actors, and their kind, even the mediocre ones, as long as she had learned of them in print.

I can see her as though it were but yesterday, on that unforgettable afternoon—never mind how many years ago—when she sat at her favorite sofa in the lounge, debating her method of attack. I could tell by her abrupt manner, and the way she tapped her lorgnette against her teeth, that she was questing possibilities. I knew, too, when she had missed the sweet and rushed through dessert, that she had wished to finish luncheon before the new arrival and so install herself where he must pass. Suddenly she turned to me, her small eyes alight.

“Go upstairs quickly and find that letter from my nephew. You remember, the one written on his honeymoon, with the snapshot. Bring it down to me right away.”

I saw then that her plans were formed, and the nephew was to be the means of introduction. Not for the first time I resented the part that I must play in her schemes. Like a juggler’s assistant I produced the props, then silent and attentive I waited on my cue. This newcomer would not welcome intrusion, I felt certain of that. In the little I had learned of him at luncheon, a smattering of hearsay garnered by her ten months ago from the daily papers and stored in her memory for future use, I could imagine, in spite of my youth and inexperience of the world, that he would resent this sudden bursting in upon his solitude. Why he should have chosen to come to the Côte d’Azur at Monte Carlo was not our concern, his problems were his own, and anyone but Mrs. Van Hopper would have understood. Tact was a quality unknown to her, discretion too, and because gossip was the breath of life to her this stranger must be served for her dissection. I found the letter in a pigeonhole in her desk, and hesitated a moment before going down again to the lounge. It seemed to me, rather senselessly, that I was allowing him a few more moments of seclusion.

I wished I had the courage to go by the Service staircase and so by roundabout way to the restaurant, and there warn him of the ambush. Convention was too strong for me though, nor did I know how I should frame my sentence. There was nothing for it but to sit in my usual place beside Mrs. Van Hopper while she, like a large, complacent spider, spun her wide net of tedium about the stranger’s person.

I had been longer than I thought, for when I returned to the lounge I saw he had already left the dining room, and she, fearful of losing him, had not waited for the letter, but had risked a bare-faced introduction on her own. He was even now sitting beside her on the sofa. I walked across to them, and gave her the letter without a word. He rose to his feet at once, while Mrs. Van Hopper, flushed with her success, waved a vague hand in my direction and mumbled my name.

“Mr. de Winter is having coffee with us, go and ask the waiter for another cup,” she said, her tone just casual enough to warn him of my footing. It meant I was a youthful thing and unimportant, and that there was no need to include me in the conversation. She always spoke in that tone when she wished to be impressive, and her method of introduction was a form of self-protection, for once I had been taken for her daughter, an acute embarrassment for us both. This abruptness showed that I could safely be ignored, and women would give me a brief nod which served as a greeting and a dismissal in one, while men, with large relief, would realize they could sink back into a comfortable chair without offending courtesy.

It was a surprise, therefore, to find that this newcomer remained standing on his feet, and it was he who made a signal to the waiter.

“I’m afraid I must contradict you,” he said to her, “you are both having coffee with me”; and before I knew what had happened he was sitting in my usual hard chair, and I was on the sofa beside Mrs. Van Hopper.

For a moment she looked annoyed—this was not what she had intended—but she soon composed her face, and thrusting her large self between me and the table she leaned forward to his chair, talking eagerly and loudly, fluttering the letter in her hand.

“You know I recognized you just as soon as you walked into the restaurant,” she said, “and I thought, ‘Why, there’s Mr. de Winter, Billy’s friend, I simply must show him those snaps of Billy and his bride taken on their honeymoon,’ and here they are. There’s Dora. Isn’t she just adorable? That little, slim waist, those great big eyes. Here they are sunbathing at Palm Beach. Billy is crazy about her, you can imagine. He had not met her of course when he gave that party at Claridge’s, and where I saw you first. But I dare say you don’t remember an old woman like me?”

This with a provocative glance and a gleam of teeth.

“On the contrary I remember you very well,” he said, and before she could trap him into a resurrection of their first meeting he had handed her his cigarette case, and the business of lighting-up stalled her for the moment. “I don’t think I should care for Palm Beach,” he said, blowing the match, and glancing at him I thought how unreal he would look against a Florida background. He belonged to a walled city of the fifteenth century, a city of narrow, cobbled streets, and thin spires, where the inhabitants wore pointed shoes and worsted hose. His face was arresting, sensitive, medieval in some strange inexplicable way, and I was reminded of a portrait seen in a gallery, I had forgotten where, of a certain Gentleman Unknown. Could one but rob him of his English tweeds, and put him in black, with lace at his throat and wrists, he would stare down at us in our new world from a long-distant past—a past where men walked cloaked at night, and stood in the shadow of old doorways, a past of narrow stairways and dim dungeons, a past of whispers in the dark, of shimmering rapier blades, of silent, exquisite courtesy.

I wished I could remember the Old Master who had painted that portrait. It stood in a corner of the gallery, and the eyes followed one from the dusky frame…

They were talking though, and I had lost the thread of conversation. “No, not even twenty years ago,” he was saying. “That sort of thing has never amused me.”

I heard Mrs. Van Hopper give her fat, complacent laugh. “If Billy had a home like Manderley he would not want to play around in Palm Beach,” she said. “I’m told it’s like fairyland, there’s no other word for it.”

She paused, expecting him to smile, but he went on smoking his cigarette, and I noticed, faint as gossamer, the line between his brows.

“I’ve seen pictures of it, of course,” she persisted, “and it looks perfectly enchanting. I remember Billy telling me it had all those big places beat for beauty. I wonder you can ever bear to leave it.”

His silence now was painful, and would have been patent to anyone else, but she ran on like a clumsy goat, trampling and trespassing on land that was preserved, and I felt the color flood my face, dragged with her as I was into humiliation.

“Of course you Englishmen are all the same about your homes,” she said, her voice becoming louder and louder, “you depreciate them so as not to seem proud. Isn’t there a minstrels’ gallery at Manderley, and some very valuable portraits?” She turned to me by way of explanation. “Mr. de Winter is so modest he won’t admit to it, but I believe that lovely home of his has been in his family’s possession since the Conquest. They say that minstrels’ gallery is a gem. I suppose your ancestors often entertained royalty at Manderley, Mr. de Winter?”

This was more than I had hitherto endured, even from her, but the swift lash of his reply was unexpected. “Not since Ethelred,” he said, “the one who was called Unready. In fact, it was while staying with my family that the name was given him. He was invariably late for dinner.”

She deserved it, of course, and I waited for her change of face, but incredible as it may seem his words were lost on her, and I was left to writhe in her stead, feeling like a child that had been smacked.

“Is that really so?” she blundered. “I’d no idea. My history is very shaky and the kings of England always muddled me. How interesting, though. I must write and tell my daughter; she’s a great scholar.”

There was a pause, and I felt the color flood into my face. I was too young, that was the trouble. Had I been older I would have caught his eye and smiled, her unbelievable behavior making a bond between us; but as it was I was stricken into shame, and endured one of the frequent agonies of youth.

I think he realized my distress, for he leaned forward in his chair and spoke to me, his voice gentle, asking if I would have more coffee, and when I refused and shook my head I felt his eyes were still on me, puzzled, reflective. He was pondering my exact relationship to her, and wondering whether he must bracket us together in futility.

“What do you think of Monte Carlo, or don’t you think of it at all?” he said. This including of me in the conversation found me at my worst, the raw ex-schoolgirl, red-elbowed and lanky-haired, and I said something obvious and idiotic about the place being artificial, but before I could finish my halting sentence Mrs. Van Hopper interrupted.

“She’s spoiled, Mr. de Winter, that’s her trouble. Most girls would give their eyes for the chance of seeing Monte.”

“Wouldn’t that rather defeat the purpose?” he said, smiling.

She shrugged her shoulders, blowing a great cloud of cigarette smoke into the air. I don’t think she understood him for a moment. “I’m faithful to Monte,” she told him; “the English winter gets me down, and my constitution just won’t stand it. What brings you here? You’re not one of the regulars. Are you going to play ‘Chemy,’ or have you brought your golfclubs?”

“I have not made up my mind,” he said; “I came away in rather a hurry.”

His own words must have jolted a memory, for his face clouded again and he frowned very slightly. She babbled on, impervious. “Of course you miss the fogs at Manderley; it’s quite another matter; the west country must be delightful in the spring.” He reached for the ashtray, squashing his cigarette, and I noticed the subtle change in his eyes, the indefinable something that lingered there, momentarily, and I felt I had looked upon something personal to himself with which I had no concern.

“Yes,” he said shortly, “Manderley was looking its best.”

A silence fell upon us during a moment or two, a silence that brought something of discomfort in its train, and stealing a glance at him I was reminded more than ever of my Gentleman Unknown who, cloaked and secret, walked a corridor by night. Mrs. Van Hopper’s voice pierced my dream like an electric bell.

“I suppose you know a crowd of people here, though I must say Monte is very dull this winter. One sees so few well-known faces. The Duke of Middlesex is here in his yacht, but I haven’t been aboard yet.” She never had, to my knowledge. “You know Nell Middlesex of course,” she went on. “What a charmer she is. They always say that second child isn’t his, but I don’t believe it. People will say anything, won’t they, when a woman is attractive? And she is so very lovely. Tell me, is it true the Caxton-Hyslop marriage is not a success?” She ran on, through a tangled fringe of gossip, never seeing that these names were alien to him, they meant nothing, and that as she prattled unaware he grew colder and more silent. Never for a moment did he interrupt or glance at his watch; it was as though he had set himself a standard of behavior, since the original lapse when he had made a fool of her in front of me, and clung to it grimly rather than offend again. It was a page boy in the end who released him, with the news that a dress-maker awaited Mrs. Van Hopper in the suite.

He got up at once, pushing back his chair. “Don’t let me keep you,” he said. “Fashions change so quickly nowadays they may even have altered by the time you get upstairs.”

The sting did not touch her, she accepted it as a pleasantry. “It’s so delightful to have run into you like this, Mr. de Winter,” she said, as we went towards the lift; “now I’ve been brave enough to break the ice I hope I shall see something of you. You must come and have a drink sometime in the suite. I may have one or two people coming in tomorrow evening. Why not join us?” I turned away so that I should not watch him search for an excuse.

“I’m so sorry,” he said, “tomorrow I am probably driving to Sospel, I’m not sure when I shall get back.”

Reluctantly she left it, but we still hovered at the entrance to the lift.

“I hope they’ve given you a good room; the place is half empty, so if you are uncomfortable mind you make a fuss. Your valet has unpacked for you, I suppose?” This familiarity was excessive, even for her, and I caught a glimpse of his expression.

“I don’t possess one,” he said quietly; “perhaps you would like to do it for me?”

This time his shaft had found its mark, for she reddened, and laughed a little awkwardly.

“Why, I hardly think…” she began, and then suddenly, and unbelievably, she turned upon me, “Perhaps you could make yourself useful to Mr. de Winter, if he wants anything done. You’re a capable child in many ways.”

There was a momentary pause, while I stood stricken, waiting for his answer. He looked down at us, mocking, faintly sardonic, a ghost of a smile on his lips.

“A charming suggestion,” he said, “but I cling to the family motto. He travels the fastest who travels alone. Perhaps you have not heard of it.”

And without waiting for her answer he turned and left us.

“What a funny thing,” said Mrs. Van Hopper, as we went upstairs in the lift. “Do you suppose that sudden departure was a form of humor? Men do such extraordinary things. I remember a well-known writer once who used to dart down the Service staircase whenever he saw me coming. I suppose he had a penchant for me and wasn’t sure of himself. However, I was younger then.”

The lift stopped with a jerk. We arrived at our floor. The page boy flung open the gates. “By the way, dear,” she said, as we walked along the corridor, “don’t think I mean to be unkind, but you put yourself just a teeny bit forward this afternoon. Your efforts to monopolize the conversation quite embarrassed me, and I’m sure it did him. Men loathe that sort of thing.”

I said nothing. There seemed no possible reply. “Oh, come, don’t sulk,” she laughed, and shrugged her shoulders; “after all, I am responsible for your behavior here, and surely you can accept advice from a woman old enough to be your mother. Eh bien, Blaize, je viens…” and humming a tune she went into the bedroom where the dressmaker was waiting for her.

I knelt on the window seat and looked out upon the afternoon. The sun shone very brightly still, and there was a gay high wind. In half an hour we should be sitting to our bridge, the windows tightly closed, the central heating turned to the full. I thought of the ashtrays I would have to clear, and how the squashed stubs, stained with lipstick, would sprawl in company with discarded chocolate creams. Bridge does not come easily to a mind brought up on Snap and Happy Families; besides, it bored her friends to play with me.

I felt my youthful presence put a curb upon their conversation, much as a parlor-maid does until the arrival of dessert, and they could not fling themselves so easily into the melting pot of scandal and insinuation. Her men-friends would assume a sort of forced heartiness and ask me jocular questions about history or painting, guessing I had not long left school and that this would be my only form of conversation.

I sighed, and turned away from the window. The sun was so full of promise, and the sea was whipped white with a merry wind. I thought of that corner of Monaco which I had passed a day or two ago, and where a crooked house leaned to a cobbled square. High up in the tumbled roof there was a window, narrow as a slit. It might have held a presence medieval; and, reaching to the desk for pencil and paper, I sketched in fancy with an absent mind a profile, pale and aquiline. A somber eye, a high-bridged nose, a scornful upper lip. And I added a pointed beard and lace at the throat, as the painter had done, long ago in a different time.

Someone knocked at the door, and the lift-boy came in with a note in his hand. “Madame is in the bedroom,” I told him but he shook his head and said it was for me. I opened it, and found a single sheet of notepaper inside, with a few words written in an unfamiliar hand.

“Forgive me. I was very rude this afternoon.” That was all. No signature, and no beginning. But my name was on the envelope, and spelled correctly, an unusual thing.

“Is there an answer?” asked the boy.

I looked up from the scrawled words. “No,” I said. “No, there isn’t any answer.”

When he had gone I put the note away in my pocket, and turned once more to my pencil drawing, but for no known reason it did not please me anymore; the face was stiff and lifeless, and the lace collar and the beard were like props in a charade.