My Cousin Rachel Chapter 11

We always carried out a strict routine upon a Sunday. Breakfast was later, at nine o’clock, and at a quarter past ten the carriage came to take Ambrose and me to church. The servants followed in the wagonette. When church was over, they returned to eat their midday dinner, later again, at one; and then at four we dined ourselves, with the vicar and Mrs. Pascoe, possibly one or two of the unmarried daughters, and generally my godfather and Louise. Since Ambrose had gone abroad I had not used the carriage but had ridden down to church on Gypsy, causing, I believe, some small amount of talk, I know not why.

This Sunday, in honor of my visitor, I gave orders for the carriage to come as of old custom, and my cousin Rachel, prepared for the event by Seecombe when he took her breakfast, descended to the hall upon the stroke of ten. A kind of ease had come upon me since the night before, and it seemed to me, as I looked upon her, that I could in future say to her what I pleased. Nothing need hold me back, neither anxiety, nor resentment, nor even common courtesy.

“A word of warning,” I said, after I had wished her a good morning. “All eyes will be upon you in the church. Even the laggards, who sometimes make excuse to stay in bed, will not remain at home today. They will be standing in the aisles, maybe on tiptoe.”

“You terrify me,” she said. “I shall not go at all.”

“That would be disgrace,” I said, “for which neither you nor I would ever be forgiven.”

She looked at me with solemn eyes.

“I am not sure,” she said, “that I know how to behave. I was bred a Catholic.”

“Keep it to yourself,” I told her. “Papists, in this part of the world, are fit only for hellfire. Or so they tell me. Watch everything I do. I won’t mislead you.”

The carriage came to the door. Wellington, with brushed hat and trim cockade, the groom beside him, was swollen with importance like a pouter pigeon. Seecombe, in starched clean stock and his Sunday coat, stood at the front door with no less dignity. It was the occasion of a lifetime.

I handed my cousin Rachel into the carriage and took my place beside her. She had a dark mantle around her shoulders, and the veil from her hat concealed her face.

“The people will want to see your face,” I said to her.

“Then they must want,” she answered.

“You don’t understand,” I said. “Nothing like this has happened in their lives. Not for nearly thirty years. The old people remember my aunt, I suppose, and my mother, but for the younger ones there has never been a Mrs. Ashley come to church before. Besides, you must enlighten their ignorance. They know you come from what they term outlandish parts. For all they know Italians may be black.”

“Will you please be quiet?” she whispered. “I can tell from Wellington’s back there, up on the box, that he can hear what you are saying.”

“I shall not be quiet,” I said, “the matter is of grave importance. I know how rumor spreads. All the countryside will go back to Sunday dinner shaking their heads and saying Mrs. Ashley is a negress.”

“I will lift my veil in church, but not before,” she said, “when I am kneeling. They can look then, if they have the mind, but by rights they should do no such thing. Their eyes should be on their prayer books.”

“A high bench surrounds the pew, with curtains to it,” I told her. “Once kneeling there you will be concealed from view. You can even play marbles if you want to. I used to, as a child.”

“Your childhood,” she said; “don’t speak of it. I know every detail. How Ambrose dismissed your nurse when you were three. How he took you out of petticoats and put you into breeches. The monstrous way in which you learned your alphabet. I am not surprised you played at marbles in the church pew. I wonder you did no worse.”

“I did once,” I said. “I brought white mice in my pocket and they ran under the seat. They scampered up the petticoat of an old lady in the pew behind. She had the vapors, and had to be removed.”

“Didn’t Ambrose beat you for it?”

“Why, no. It was he who set them loose upon the floor.”

My cousin Rachel pointed to Wellington’s back. His shoulders had stiffened, and his ears were red.

“You will behave yourself today, or I shall walk out of the church,” she said to me.

“Then everyone would think you had the vapors,” I said, “and my godfather and Louise would come rushing to your assistance. Oh, great heaven…” I broke off, and clapped my hand on my knee in consternation.

“What’s the matter?”

“I’ve only just remembered. I promised to ride over yesterday to Pelyn to see Louise, and I forgot all about it. She may have waited for me all afternoon.”

“That,” said my cousin Rachel, “was not very gallant of you. I hope she snubs you well.”

“I shall blame it upon you,” I said, “which will be the truth. I shall say you demanded to be taken round the Barton.”

“I would not have asked you to do so,” she said, “had I known you were supposed to be elsewhere. Why did you not tell me?”

“Because I had forgotten all about it.”

“If I were Louise,” she said, “I would take that in bad part. You could not offer a woman a worse excuse.”

“Louise isn’t a woman,” I said, “she’s younger than myself, and I have known her since she ran around in petticoats.”

“That’s no answer. She has feelings just the same.”

“Ah well, she will get over them. She will sit next to me at dinner, and I shall tell her how well she arranged the flowers.”

“What flowers?”

“The flowers in the house. The flowers in your boudoir, and in the bedroom. She drove over especially to do them.”

“How very thoughtful.”

“She did not trust Seecombe to do them properly.”

“I don’t blame her for that. She showed great delicacy and taste. I liked best of all the bowl on the mantelpiece in the boudoir, and the autumn crocus beside the window.”

“Was there a bowl on the mantelpiece,” I said, “and another by the window? I did not notice either. But I will compliment her just the same, and hope she does not ask for a description.”

I looked at her, and laughed, and I saw the eyes smile back at me under the veil, but she shook her head.

We had descended the steep hill and turned along the lane, and were now come to the village and the church. As I had thought, there was a gathering of people by the rails. I knew most of them, but there were many besides drawn there by curiosity. There was a sort of pressure among them as the carriage drew up before the gate and we alighted. I took off my hat and offered my cousin Rachel my arm. I had seen my godfather do this to Louise a score of times. We walked up the path to the church door, the people staring at us. I had expected to feel myself a fool, and out of my own character, but it was quite otherwise. I felt confident and proud, and oddly pleased. I stared ahead of me, looking neither to right nor to left, and as we passed the men took their hats off to us and the women curtsied. I could not remember them doing this to me alone. It was, after all, a great occasion.

As we entered the church, and the bells were ringing, those people who were already seated in their pews turned round to look at us. There was a scraping of feet among the men, and a rustle of skirts among the women. We walked up the aisle past the Kendall pew to our own. I caught sight of my godfather, his bushy brows drawn straight together, a thoughtful expression on his face. No doubt he was wondering how I had conducted myself during the past forty-eight hours. Good breeding forbade him to look at either of us. Louise sat beside him, very stiff and straight. She had a haughty air about her, and I supposed I had given her offense. But as I stepped aside to let my cousin Rachel enter the pew first, curiosity proved too much for Louise. She glanced up, stared at my visitor, and then caught my eye. She raised her eyebrows in a question. I pretended not to see, and closed the door of the pew behind me. The congregation knelt in prayer.

It was a queer sensation having a woman in the pew beside me. My memory went right back to childhood, when Ambrose took me first, and I had to stand on a footstool to look over the bench in front of me. I would copy Ambrose, holding the prayer book in my hands, but very often upside down; and when it came to murmuring the responses I would echo the mumble he made, with no thought as to meaning. As I grew taller I would pull the curtains aside and look out upon the people, watch the parson and the choirboys in their stalls, and later, on holiday from Harrow, sit back with folded arms as Ambrose did, and doze if the sermon proved too long. Now I had come to manhood church had become a period for reflection. Not, I regret to say, upon my failings and omissions, but upon my plans for the forthcoming week; what must be done upon the farmlands or in the woods, what I must say to Seecombe’s nephew at the fish-house in the bay, what forgotten order must be passed onto Tamlyn. I had sat in the pew alone, locked in myself, with nothing and no one to distract me. I sang the psalms and gave the responses from long habit. This Sunday was different. I was aware of her beside me all the time. There was no question of her not knowing what to do. She might have attended a Church of England service every Sunday of her life. She sat very still, her eyes fixed gravely upon the vicar, and when she knelt I noticed that she knelt full upon her knees, and did not sit half upon the seat as Ambrose and I were wont to do. Nor did she rustle, turn her head, or stare about her, as Mrs. Pascoe and her daughters always did, from their pew in the side aisle where the vicar could not see them. When we came to sing the hymns she put up her veil, and I saw her lips follow the words, but I did not hear her sing. She lowered the veil again when we sat down to listen to the sermon.

I wondered who had been the last women to sit here in the Ashley pew. Aunt Phoebe possibly, sighing for her curate; or uncle Philip’s wife, Ambrose’s mother, whom I had never seen. Perhaps my father had sat here, before he went away to fight the French and lose his life, and my own mother, young and delicate, who survived my father, Ambrose told me, a bare five months. I had never thought much about them, or felt the lack of them, Ambrose had answered for them both. But now, looking at my cousin Rachel, I wondered about my mother. Had she knelt there, on that footstool beside my father; had she sat back, and clasped her hands on her lap in front of her, and listened to the sermon? And afterwards, did she drive back home and go to pick me from my cradle? I wondered, sitting there as Mr. Pascoe’s voice droned on, what it had felt like as a child, being held in my mother’s arms. Had she touched my hair and kissed my cheek, and then, smiling, put me back into the cradle? I wished suddenly that I could remember her. Why was it that a child’s mind could not return beyond a certain limit? I had been a little boy, staggering after Ambrose, shouting to him to wait for me. Nothing before that. Nothing at all…

“And now to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost.” The vicar’s words brought me to my feet. I had not heard a word of his sermon. Nor had I planned my week to come. I had sat there dreaming, and watching my cousin Rachel.

I reached for my hat, and touched her arm. “You did very well,” I whispered, “but your real ordeal is now before you.”

“Thank you,” she whispered back, “so is yours. You have to make amends for your broken promise.”

We went out of the church into the sun, and there waiting for us was a little crowd of people, tenants, acquaintances and friends, and among them Mrs. Pascoe, the vicar’s wife, and her daughters, as well as my godfather and Louise. One by one they came up to be presented. We might have been at Court. My cousin Rachel put up her veil, and I made a mental note to tease her about it when we were alone again.

As we walked down the path to the waiting carriages she said to me before the others, so that I could not remonstrate—and I could tell by the look in her eye and the bubble in her voice that she did it purposely—“Philip, would you not like to conduct Miss Kendall in your carriage, and I will go with Mr. Kendall in his?”

“Why certainly, if you prefer it,” I said.

“That seems to me a very happy arrangement,” she said, smiling at my godfather, who, bowing in his turn, offered her his arm. They turned with one accord to the Kendall carriage, and there was nothing for it but to climb into the first one with Louise. I felt like a schoolboy who has been slapped. Wellington whipped up the horses and we were off.

“Look here, Louise, I’m sorry,” I began at once, “it was quite impossible to get away yesterday afternoon after all. My cousin Rachel wished to see the Barton acres, so I accompanied her. There was no time to let you know, or I would have sent the boy over with a note.”

“Oh, don’t apologize,” she said. “I waited about two hours, but it did not matter. The day was luckily fine, and I passed the time by picking a basket of late blackberries.”

“It was most unfortunate,” I said, “I’m really very sorry.”

“I guessed something of the sort had kept you,” she said, “but I am thankful it was nothing serious. I know how you felt about the whole visit, and I was rather fearful that you might do something violent, perhaps have some terrible disagreement, and we would suddenly find her arriving on our doorstep. Well, what happened? Have you really survived so far without a clash? Tell me all.”

I tilted my hat over my eyes and folded my arms.

“All? What do you mean by ‘all’?”

“Why, everything. What did you say to her, how did she take it. Was she very much aghast by all you said, or did she show no sign of guilt at all?”

Her voice was low, and Wellington could not hear, but for all that I felt irritated, and altogether out of humor. What a place and time to choose for such a conversation, and anyway, why must she catechize me at all?

“We’ve had little time for talking,” I said. “The first evening she was tired, and went early to bed. Yesterday was taken up by walking about the place. The gardens in the morning, and the Barton lands in the afternoon.”

“Then you’ve had no serious discussion whatsoever?”

“It depends what you mean by serious. All I know is that she is a very different sort of person from what I thought she would be. You can see that for yourself, in the brief glimpse you’ve had of her.”

Louise was silent. She did not lean back against the carriage seat as I did. She sat bolt upright, her hands in her muff.

“She’s very beautiful,” she said at last.

I took my legs down from the seat opposite and turned round to stare at her.

“Beautiful?” I said, amazed. “My dear Louise, you must be mad.”

“Oh, no, I’m not,” replied Louise. “Ask my father, ask anyone. Didn’t you notice how the people stared when she put up her veil? It’s only because you are so blind to women that you have not noticed it.”

“I’ve never heard such nonsense in my life,” I said. “Perhaps she has fine eyes, but otherwise she is quite ordinary. The most ordinary person I have ever met. Why, I can say what I like to her, I can talk of anything, I don’t have to put on any sort of special manner of behavior in front of her, it is the easiest thing in the whole world merely to sit down in a chair in front of her and light my pipe.”

“I thought you said you had no time to talk to her?”

“Don’t quibble. Of course we talked at dinner, and out upon the acres. The point I wish to make is that it required no effort.”


“As to being beautiful, I shall have to tell her. She will laugh at that. Naturally the people stared at her. They stared at her because she was Mrs. Ashley.”

“That as well. But not entirely. Anyway, whether she be ordinary or not, she seems to have made a great impression on you. Of course she is middle-aged. Quite thirty-five I should say, wouldn’t you? Or do you think her less?”

“I haven’t the remotest idea, not do I care, Louise. I’m not interested in people’s ages. She could be ninety-nine for all I know.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. Women don’t have eyes like that at ninety-nine, nor that complexion. She dresses well. That gown was excellently cut, so was the mantle. Mourning certainly does not appear drab on her.”

“Great heavens, Louise, you might be Mrs. Pascoe. I’ve never before in my life heard such woman-ish sort of gossip come from you.”

“Nor I such enthusiasm from you, so it’s tit-for-tat. What a change in forty-eight hours. Well, one person will be relieved and that’s my father. He feared bloodshed, after you saw him last, and who shall blame him?”

I was thankful the long hill had come, so that I could get out of the carriage and walk up it, with the groom, to ease the horses as was our custom. What an extraordinary attitude for Louise to take. Instead of being relieved that my cousin Rachel’s visit was passing off so well she appeared quite put out, almost angry. It seemed to me a poor way to show her friendship. When we came to the top of the hill I climbed in again and sat beside her, and we did not say a word to one another the whole way. It was quite ridiculous, but if she made no attempt to break the silence I was damned if I would either. I could not help reflecting how much more pleasant had been the drive going down to church than the return.

I wondered how the other pair had fared in the second carriage. Pretty well, it seemed. When we descended from our carriage and Wellington had turned round to make way for them, Louise and I stood by the door and waited for my godfather and my cousin Rachel. They were chattering like old friends, and my godfather, generally rather blunt and taciturn, was holding forth upon some subject with unusual warmth. I caught the words “disgraceful” and “the country won’t stand for it.” I knew then that he was launched upon his favorite subject, the Government and the Opposition. I wagered to myself that he, for his part, had probably not eased the horses by walking up the hill.

“Did you have a pleasant drive?” inquired my cousin Rachel, searching my eye, a tremor at her mouth, and I could swear she knew from our stiff faces how the drive had been.

“Thank you, yes,” said Louise, standing back, allowing her to pass first, in courtesy; but my cousin Rachel took her arm and said, “Come with me to my room, and take off your coat and hat. I want to thank you for the lovely flowers.”

My godfather and I had barely had time to wash our hands and exchange greetings before the entire family of Pascoe was upon us, and it devolved upon me to escort the vicar and his daughters round the gardens. The vicar was harmless enough, but I could have dispensed with the daughters. As to the vicar’s wife, Mrs. Pascoe, she had gone upstairs to join the ladies like a hound after quarry. She had never seen the blue room out of dustcovers… The daughters were loud in praise of my cousin Rachel, and like Louise professed to find her beautiful. It delighted me to tell them that I found her small and entirely unremarkable, and they uttered little squeals of protestation. “Not unremarkable,” said Mr. Pascoe, flipping the head of a hortensia with his cane, “certainly not unremarkable. Nor would I say, as the girls do, beautiful. But feminine, that is the word, most decidedly feminine.”

“But, Father,” said one of the daughters, “surely you would not expect Mrs. Ashley to be anything else?”

“My dear,” said the vicar, “you would be surprised how many women lack that very quality.”

I thought of Mrs. Pascoe and her horselike head, and swiftly pointed out the young palms that Ambrose had brought back from Egypt, which they must have seen a score of times before, thus turning, it seemed to me with tact, the conversation.

When we returned to the house, and entered the drawing room, we discovered Mrs. Pascoe telling my cousin Rachel in loud tones about her kitchen-maid, brought to trouble by the garden boy.

“What I cannot understand, Mrs. Ashley, is where it happened? She shared a room with my cook, and as far as we know never left the house.”

“How about the cellar?” said my cousin Rachel.

The conversation was instantly stifled as we came into the room. Not since Ambrose had been home two years before had I ever known a Sunday pass as swiftly. And even when he was there it had dragged many times. Disliking Mrs. Pascoe, indifferent to the daughters, and merely suffering Louise because she was the daughter of his oldest friend, he had always angled for the vicar’s company alone, with my godfather’s. Then the four of us had been able to relax. When the women came the hours had seemed like days. This day was different.

Dinner, when it was served, with the meats upon the table and the silver polished, seemed to spread itself before us like a banquet. I sat at the head of the table, where Ambrose had always sat, and my cousin Rachel at the further end. It gave me Mrs. Pascoe as a neighbor, but for once she did not goad me to a fury. Three-quarters of the time her large inquiring face was turned to the other end; she laughed, she ate, she forgot even to snap her jaws at her husband, the vicar, who, drawn out of his shell for possibly the first time in his life, flushed and with eyes afire, proceeded to quote poetry. The entire Pascoe family blossomed like the rose, and I had never seen my godfather enjoy himself so much.

Only Louise seemed silent, and withdrawn. I did my best with her, but she did not, or would not, respond. She sat stiffly on my left hand, eating little and crumbling bits of bread, with a fixed expression on her face as if she had swallowed a marble. Well, if she wanted to sulk, then sulk she must. I was too much entertained myself to worry with her. I sat hunched in my chair, resting my arms on the sides of it, laughing at my cousin Rachel, who kept encouraging the vicar with his verse. This, I thought to myself, is the most fantastic Sunday dinner I have ever sat through, eaten, and enjoyed, and I would have given the whole world for Ambrose to be there, sharing it with us. When we had finished dessert, and the port was put upon the table, I did not know whether I should rise, as I usually did, to open the door, or if, now I had a hostess opposite me, it would be her place to give some signal. There was a pause in the conversation. Suddenly she looked at me and smiled. I smiled back at her in answer. We seemed to hold each other for a moment. It was queer, strange. The feeling went right through me, never before known.

Then my godfather remarked in his gruff deep voice, “Tell me, Mrs. Ashley, does not Philip remind you very much of Ambrose?”

There was a moment’s silence. She put down her napkin on the table. “So much so,” she said, “that I have wondered, sitting here at dinner, if there is any difference.”

She rose to her feet, the other women too, and I went across the dining room and opened the door. But when they were gone, and I had returned to my chair, the feeling was with me still.