My Cousin Rachel Chapter 10

“You went to Florence?” she said. “When, how long ago?”

“I have been home a little under three weeks,” I said. “I went there and returned through France. I spent one night in Florence only. The night of the fifteenth of August.”

“The fifteenth of August?” I heard the new inflection in her voice, I saw her eyes flash back in memory. “But I had only left for Genoa the day before. It isn’t possible.”

“It is both possible and true,” I said; “it happened.”

The embroidery had fallen from her hands, and that strange look, almost of apprehension, came back into her eyes.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” she said. “Why have you let me stay here in the house, four-and-twenty hours, and never breathed a word of it? Last night, you should have told me last night.”

“I thought you knew,” I said. “I had asked my godfather to write it in his letter. Anyway, there it is. You know now.”

Some coward streak in me hoped that we could let the matter rest, that she would pick up the embroidery once again. But it was not to be.

“You went to the villa,” she said, as though talking to herself. “Giuseppe must have let you in. He would open up the gates and see you standing there, and he would think…” She broke off, a cloud came over her eyes, she looked away from me to the fire.

“I want you to tell me what happened, Philip,” she said.

I put my hand in my pocket. I felt the letters there.

“I had not heard from Ambrose in a long while,” I said, “not since Easter, or perhaps Whitsun—I don’t recall the date, but I have all his letters upstairs. I grew worried. And the weeks went by. Then, in July, the letter came. Only a page. Unlike himself, a sort of scrawl. I showed it to my godfather, Nick Kendall, and he agreed that I should start at once for Florence, which I did within a day or two. As I left another letter came, a few sentences only. I have both these letters in my pocket now. Do you want to see them?”

She did not answer immediately. She had turned back from the fire and was looking at me once again. There was something of compulsion in those eyes, neither forceful nor commanding, but strangely deep, strangely tender, as if she had the power to read and understand my reluctance to continue, knowing the reason for it, and so urged me on.

“Not just yet,” she said, “afterwards.”

I shifted my gaze from her eyes down to her hands. They were clasped in front of her, small and very still. It was easier to speak somehow if I did not look directly at her, but at her hands.

“I arrived in Florence,” I said, “I hired a carrozza and drove to your villa. The servant, the woman, opened the gate, and I asked for Ambrose. She seemed frightened and called to her husband. He came, and then he told me Ambrose was dead and you had gone away. He showed me the villa. I saw the room where he had died. Just before I left the woman opened a chest and gave me Ambrose’s hat. It was the only thing you had forgotten to take with you.”

I paused, and went on looking at the hands. The right fingers were touching the ring on the left hand. I watched them tighten upon it.

“Go on,” she said.

“I went down into Florence,” I said. “The servant had given me the address of Signor Rainaldi. I went and called upon him. He looked startled at sight of me, but soon recovered. He gave me the particulars of Ambrose’s illness and death, also a note to the guardian at the Protestant cemetery should I care to visit the grave, which I did not. I inquired of your whereabouts, but he professed not to know. That was all. The following day I started back on my journey home.”

There was another pause. The fingers relaxed their hold upon the ring. “Can I see the letters?” she said.

I took them from my pocket and gave them to her. I looked back again at the fire, and I heard the crinkle of the paper as she opened the letters. There was a long silence. Then she said, “Only these two?”

“Only those two,” I answered.

“Nothing after Easter, or Whitsun, did you say, until these came?”

“No, nothing.”

She must have been reading them over and over, learning the words by heart as I had done. At last she gave them back to me.

“How you have hated me,” she said slowly.

I looked up, startled, and it seemed to me, as we stared at one another, that she knew now all my fantasies, my dreams, that she saw one by one the faces of the women I had conjured all those months. Denial was no use, protestation absurd. The barriers were down. It was a queer feeling, as though I sat naked in my chair.

“Yes,” I said.

It was easier, once said. Perhaps, I thought to myself, this is how a Catholic feels in the confessional. This is what it means to be purged. A burden lifted. Emptiness instead.

“Why did you ask me here?” she said.

“To accuse you.”

“Accuse me of what?”

“I am not sure. Perhaps of breaking his heart, which would be murder, wouldn’t it?”

“And then?”

“I had not planned so far. I wanted, more than anything in the world, to make you suffer. To watch you suffer. Then, I suppose, to let you go.”

“That was generous. More generous than I should deserve. Still, you have been successful. You have got what you wanted. Go on watching me, until you’ve had your fill.”

Something was happening to the eyes that looked at me. The face was very white and still; that did not change. Had I ground the face to powder with my heel, the eyes would have remained, with the tears that never ran down upon the cheeks, and never fell.

I rose from my chair and walked across the room.

“It’s no use,” I said. “Ambrose always told me I would make a rotten soldier. I can’t shoot in cold blood. Please go upstairs, or anywhere but here. My mother died before I can remember, and I have never seen a woman cry.” I opened the door for her. But she went on sitting there by the fire, she did not move.

“Cousin Rachel, go upstairs,” I said.

I don’t know how my voice sounded, whether it was harsh, or loud, but old Don, lying on the floor, lifted his head and looked up at me, fixing me in his old-wise doggy fashion, and then stretching himself, and yawning, went and laid his head on her feet, beside the fire. Then she moved. She put down her hand and touched his head. I shut the door and came back to the hearth. I took the two letters and threw them in the fire.

“That’s no use either,” she said, “when we both of us remember what he said.”

“I can forget,” I said, “if you will too. There’s something clean about a fire. Nothing remains. Ashes don’t count.”

“If you were a little older,” she said, “or your life had been different, if you were anyone but yourself and had not loved him quite so much, I could talk to you about those letters, and about Ambrose. I won’t, though; I would rather you condemned me. It makes it easier in the long run for both of us. If you will let me stay until Monday I will go away after that, and you need never think about me again. Although you did not intend it to be so, last night and today were deeply happy. Bless you, Philip.”

I stirred the fire with my foot, and the embers fell.

“I don’t condemn you,” I said. “Nothing has worked out as I thought or planned. I can’t go on hating a woman who doesn’t exist.”

“But I do exist.”

“You are not the woman I hated. There’s no more to it than that.”

She went on stroking Don’s head, and now he lifted it and leaned it against her knee.

“This woman,” she said, “that you pictured in your mind. Did she take shape when you read the letters, or before?”

I thought about it for a moment. Then I let it all come, with a rush of words. Why hold back anything to rot?

“Before,” I said slowly. “In a sense I was relieved when the letters came. They gave me a reason for hating you. Up till then there was nothing I could go upon, and I was ashamed.”

“Why were you ashamed?”

“Because I believe there is nothing so self-destroying, and no emotion quite so despicable, as jealousy.”

“You were jealous…”

“Yes. I can say it now, oddly enough. Right from the start, when he wrote and told me he was married. Perhaps even before there may have been a sort of shadow, I don’t know. Everyone expected me to be as delighted as they were themselves, and it wasn’t possible. It must sound highly emotional and absurd to you that I should have been jealous. Like a spoiled child. Perhaps that’s what I was, and am. The trouble is that I have never known anyone or loved anyone in the world but Ambrose.”

Now I was thinking aloud, not caring what she thought of me. I was putting things into words I had not acknowledged to myself before.

“Was not that his trouble too?” she said.

“How do you mean?”

She took her hand off Don’s head, and cupping her chin in her hands, her elbows on her knee, she stared into the fire.

“You are only twenty-four, Philip,” she said, “you have all your life before you, many years probably of happiness, married no doubt, with a wife you love, and children of your own. Your love for Ambrose will never grow less, but it will slip back into place where it belongs. The love of any son for any father. It was not so for him. Marriage came too late.”

I knelt on one knee before the fire and lit my pipe. I did not think to ask permission. I knew she did not mind.

“Why too late?” I asked.

“He was forty-three,” she said, “when he came out to Florence just two years ago, and I saw him for the first time. You know how he looked, how he spoke, his ways, his smile. It was your life since babyhood. But you would not know the effect it had upon a woman whose life had not been happy, who had known men—very different.”

I said nothing, but I think I understood.

“I don’t know why he turned to me, but he did,” she said. “Those things can never be explained, they happen. Why this man should love that woman, what queer chemical mix-up in our blood draws us to one another, who can tell? To me, lonely, anxious, and a survivor of too many emotional shipwrecks, he came almost as a savior, as an answer to prayer. To be strong as he was, and tender too, lacking all personal conceit, I had not met with that. It was a revelation. I know what he was to me. But I to him…”

She paused, and drawing her brows together, frowned into the fire. Once again her fingers played with the ring on her left hand.

“He was like someone sleeping who woke suddenly and found the world,” she said, “all the beauty of it, and the sadness too. The hunger and the thirst. Everything he had never thought about or known was there before him, and magnified themselves into one person who by chance, or fate, call it what you will, happened to be me. Rainaldi—whom he detested by the way, as you probably did too—told me once that Ambrose had woken to me just as some men wake to religion. He became obsessed, in the same fashion. But a man who gets religion can go into a monastery and pray all day before Our Lady on an altar. She is made of plaster anyway, and does not change. Women are not so, Philip. Their moods vary with the days and nights, sometimes even with the hours, just as a man’s can do. We are human, that is our failing.”

I did not understand what she meant about religion. I could only think of old Isaiah, down at St. Blazey, who turned Methodist and went about bareheaded preaching in the lanes. He called upon Jehovah, and said he and all of us were miserable sinners in the eyes of the Lord, and we must go knocking at the gates of a new Jerusalem. I did not see how this state of things applied to Ambrose. Catholics were different, of course. She must mean that Ambrose had thought of her like a graven image in the Ten Commandments. Thou shalt not bow down to them, nor worship them.

“You mean,” I said, “that he expected too much of you? He put you on a sort of pedestal?”

“No,” she said, “I would have welcomed a pedestal, after my rough life. A halo can be a lovely thing, providing you can take it off, now and again, and become human.”

“What then?”

She sighed, and her hands dropped to her side. She suddenly looked very tired. She leaned back in her chair, and resting her head against the cushion closed her eyes.

“Finding religion does not always improve a person,” she said, “waking to the world did not help Ambrose. His nature changed.”

Her voice sounded tired too, and oddly flat. Perhaps if I had been speaking in the confessional, so had she. She lay back in the chair pressing her eyes with the palms of her hands.

“Change?” I said. “How did his nature change?”

I felt a queer sort of shock in my heart, like the shock that comes to you as a child when you suddenly learn of death, or of evil, or of cruelty.

“The doctors told me later that it was his illness,” she said, “that he could not help himself, that qualities lying dormant all his life came to the surface at long last, through pain, and fear. But I shall never be sure. Never be certain that it need have happened. Something in me brought out those qualities. Finding me was ecstasy to him for one brief moment, and then catastrophe. You were right to hate me. If he had not come to Italy he would have been living here with you now. He would not have died.”

I felt ashamed, embarrassed. I did not know what to say. “He might have become ill just the same,” I said, as though to help her. “Then I would have borne the brunt of it, not you.”

She took her hands away from her face, and without moving looked across at me and smiled.

“He loved you so much,” she said. “You might have been his son, he was so proud of you. Always my Philip would do this, my boy would do that. Why, Philip, if you have been jealous of me these eighteen months, I think we are quits. Heaven knows I could have done with less of you at times.”

I looked back at her, and slowly smiled.

“Did you make pictures too?” I asked her.

“I never stopped,” she said. “That spoiled boy, I told myself, always writing letters to him, which I may say he would read extracts from, but never show. That boy who has no faults, but all the virtues. That boy who understands him, when I fail. That boy who holds three-quarters of his heart, and all the best of him. While I hold one-third, and all the worst. Oh, Philip…” She broke off, and smiled again at me. “Good God,” she said, “you talk of jealousy. A man’s jealousy is like a child’s, fitful and foolish, without depth. A woman’s jealousy is adult, which is very different.” Then she put back the cushion from behind her head, and patted it. She straightened her gown, and sat upright in her chair. “I would say that, for this night, I have talked to you enough,” she said. She bent forward, and picked up the piece of embroidery that had fallen on the floor.

“I’m not tired,” I said. “I could go on longer, much longer. That is to say, not speaking perhaps myself, but listening to you.”

“We still have tomorrow,” she said.

“Why only tomorrow?”

“Because I go on Monday. I came for the weekend only. Your godfather, Nick Kendall, has invited me to Pelyn.”

It seemed to me absurd, and altogether pointless, that she should shift her quarters quite so soon.

“There’s no need to go there,” I said, “when you have only just arrived. You have plenty of time to visit Pelyn. You have not seen the half of this yet. I don’t know what the servants would think, or the people on the estate. They would be deeply offended.”

“Would they?” she asked.

“Besides,” I said, “there is the carrier coming from Plymouth, with all the plants and cuttings. You have to discuss it with Tamlyn. And there are Ambrose’s things to go through and sort.”

“I thought you could do that by yourself,” she said.

“Why,” I said, “when we could do it both of us together?”

I stood up from my chair and stretched my arms above my head. I kicked Don with my foot. “Wake up,” I said, “it’s time you stopped that snoring and went out with the others to the kennels.” He stirred himself, and grunted. “Lazy old devil,” I said. I glanced down at her, and she was looking up at me with such a strange expression in her eyes, almost as though she saw right through me into someone else.

“What is it?” I asked.

“Nothing,” she answered, “nothing at all… Can you find me a candle, Philip, and light me up to bed?”

“Very well,” I said. “I’ll take Don to his kennel afterwards.”

The candlesticks were waiting on the table by the door. She took hers, and I lighted the candle for her. It was dark in the hall but above, on the landing, Seecombe had left a light to the further corridor.

“That will do,” she said. “I can find my way alone.”

She stood a moment on one step of the staircase, her face in the shadow. One hand held the candlestick, the other held her dress.

“You don’t hate me anymore?” she asked.

“No,” I said, “I told you it was not you. It was another woman.”

“Are you sure it was another woman?”

“Quite sure.”

“Good night, then. And sleep well.”

She turned to go, but I put my hand on her arm and held her back.

“Wait,” I said, “it’s my turn to ask you a question.”

“What is it, Philip?”

“Are you still jealous of me, or was that also some other man, and never me at all?”

She laughed and gave me her hand, and because she stood above me on the stairs there seemed a new sort of grace about her that I had not realized before. Her eyes looked large in the flickering candlelight.

“That horrid boy, so spoiled and prim?” she said. “Why, he went yesterday, as soon as you walked into aunt Phoebe’s boudoir.”

Suddenly she bent, and kissed my cheek.

“The first you have ever had,” she said, “and if you don’t like it, you can pretend I did not give it to you, but that it came from the other woman.”

She walked up the stairs away from me, and the light of the candle threw a shadow, dark and distant, on the wall.