My Cousin Rachel Chapter 13

By the time I had ridden back along the high road from Pelyn, and across country down into town, and so home again, I must have covered near on twenty miles. I had paused for a draft of cider at the inn on the town quay, but had eaten nothing, and was well-nigh famished by four o’clock.

The clock struck the hour from the belfry on the house and I rode straight to the stables, where as ill luck had it Wellington was waiting instead of the groom.

He clucked his tongue at sight of Gypsy in a lather. “This won’t do at all, Mr. Philip, sir,” he said, as I dismounted, and I felt as guilty as I used to do when overheated, and here you’ve been and brought her back steaming. She’s in no condition to follow hounds, if that’s what you’ve been doing.”

“If I’d been following hounds I’d be away on Bodmin moor,” I said, “Don’t be an ass, Wellington. I’ve been over to see Mr. Kendall on business, and then went into town. I’m sorry about Gypsy, but it can’t be helped. I don’t think she’ll come to harm.”

“I hope not, sir,” said Wellington, and he began running his hands over poor Gypsy’s flanks as though I had put her to a steeplechase.

I walked back to the house, and went into the library. The fire was burning brightly, but there was no sign of my cousin Rachel. I rang the bell for Seecombe.

“Where is Mrs. Ashley?” I asked, as he entered the room.

“Madam came in a little after three, sir,” he said. “She and the gardeners have been working in the grounds ever since you left. Tamlyn is in the steward’s room with me now. He says he has never seen anything like it, the manner in which the mistress sets about it. He says she’s a wonder.”

“She must be exhausted,” I said.

“I was afraid of that, sir. I suggested she should go to bed, but she would not hear of it. ‘Tell the boys to bring me up cans of hot water. I’ll take a bath, Seecombe,’ she said to me, ‘and I’ll wash my hair as well.’ I was about to send for my niece, it seems hardly right for a lady to wash her own hair, but she would not hear of that either.”

“The boys had better do the same for me,” I told him; “I’ve had a hard day too. And I’m devilish hungry. I want my dinner early.”

“Very well, sir. At a quarter to five?”

“Please, Seecombe, if you can manage it.”

I went upstairs, whistling, to throw my clothes off and sit in the steaming tub before my bedroom fire. The dogs came along the corridor from my cousin Rachel’s room. They had become quite accustomed to the visitor, and followed her everywhere. Old Don thumped his tail at me from the top of the stairs.

“Hullo, old fellow,” I said; “you’re faithless, you know. You’ve left me for a lady.” He licked my hand with his long furry tongue, and made big eyes at me.

The boy came with the can and filled the bath, and it was pleasant to sit there in the tub, cross-legged, and scrub myself, whistling a tuneless song above the steam. As I rubbed myself dry with the towel I noticed that on the table beside my bed was a bowl of flowers. Sprigs from the woods, orchis and cyclamen among them. No one had ever put flowers in my room before. Seecombe would not have thought of it, or the boys either. It must have been my cousin Rachel. The sight of the flowers added to my mood of high good humor. She may have been messing with the plants and shrubs all day, but she had found the time to fill the bowl with flowers as well. I tied my cravat and put on my dinner coat, still humming my tuneless song. Then I went along the corridor, and knocked upon the door of the boudoir.

“Who is it?” she called from within.

“It is me, Philip,” I answered. “I have come to tell you that dinner will be early tonight. I’m starving, and so I should think are you, after the tales I’ve heard. What in the world have you and Tamlyn been up to, that you have to take a bath and wash your hair?”

That bubble of laughter, so infectious, was her answer.

“We’ve been burrowing underground, like moles,” she called.

“Have you earth up to your eyebrows?”

“Earth everywhere,” she answered. “I’ve had my bath, and now I am drying my hair. I am pinned up and presentable, and look exactly like aunt Phoebe. You may come in.”

I opened the door and went into the boudoir. She was sitting on the stool before the fire, and for a moment I scarcely recognized her, she looked so different out of mourning. She had a white dressing wrapper around her, tied at the throat and at the wrists with ribbon, and her hair was pinned on the top of her head, instead of parted smoothly in the center.

I had never seen anything less like aunt Phoebe, or aunt anyone. I stood blinking at her in the doorway.

“Come and sit down. Don’t look so startled,” she said to me. I shut the door behind me, and went and sat down on a chair.

“Forgive me,” I said, “but the point is that I have never seen a woman in undress before.”

“This isn’t undress,” she said, “it’s what I wear at breakfast. Ambrose used to call it my nun’s robe.”

She raised her arms, and began to jab pins into her hair.

“At twenty-four,” she said, “it is high time you saw a pleasant homely sight such as aunt Phoebe doing up her hair. Are you embarrassed?”

I folded my arms and crossed my legs, and continued to look at her. “Not in the slightest,” I said, “merely stunned.”

She laughed, and holding the pins in her mouth took them one by one, and winding her hair into a roll placed it the way it should go, in the low knot behind. The whole matter only took a few seconds, or so it seemed to me.

“Do you do that every day in so short a time?” I asked, amazed.

“Oh, Philip, what a lot you have to learn,” she said to me; “have you never seen your Louise pin up her hair?”

“No, and I wouldn’t want to,” I answered swiftly, with a sudden memory of Louise’s parting remark as I left Pelyn. My cousin Rachel laughed, and dropped a hairpin on my knee.

“A keepsake,” she said. “Put it under your pillow, and watch Seecombe’s face at breakfast in the morning.”

She passed from the boudoir into the bedroom opposite, leaving the door wide open.

“You can sit there and shout through to me while I dress,” she called.

I looked furtively at the little bureau to see if there was any sign of my godfather’s letter, but could see nothing. I wondered what had happened. Perhaps she had it with her in the bedroom. It might be that she would say nothing to me, that she would treat the matter as a private one between my godfather and herself. I hoped so.

“Where have you been all day?” she called to me.

“I had to go into town,” I said, “there were people there I was obliged to see.” I need not say a word about the bank.

“I was so happy with Tamlyn and the gardeners,” she called. “There were only very few of the plants to be thrown away. There is so much, Philip, you know, still to be done in that plantation; the undergrowth bordering the meadow should be cleared, and a walk laid down, and the whole ground there given up to camellias, so that in less than twenty years you could have a spring garden there that the whole of Cornwall would come to see.”

“I know,” I said; “that was what Ambrose intended.”

“It needs careful planning,” she said, “and not just left to chance and Tamlyn. He is a dear, but his knowledge is limited. Why do you not take more interest in it yourself?”

“I don’t know enough,” I said, “it was never my department anyway. Ambrose knew that.”

“There must be people who could help you,” she said. “You could have a designer down from London to lay it out.”

I did not answer. I did not want a designer down from London. I was pretty sure she knew more about it than any designer.

Just then Seecombe appeared and hovered in the passage.

“What is it, Seecombe, is dinner ready?” I asked.

“No, sir,” he replied. “Mr. Kendall’s man, Dobson, has ridden over with a note for madam.”

My heart sank. The wretched fellow must have stayed somewhere drinking on the road to be so late. Now I should be caught for the business of her reading it. How wretchedly ill-timed. I heard Seecombe knock on her open door, and give in the letter.

“I think I will go below and wait for you in the library,” I said.

“No, don’t go,” she called, “I’m ready dressed. We can go down together. Here is a letter from Mr. Kendall. Perhaps he invites us both to Pelyn.”

Seecombe disappeared along the corridor. I stood up and wished that I could follow him. Suddenly I felt uneasy, nervous. No sound came from the blue bedroom. She must be reading the letter. Ages seemed to pass. At last she came out of the bedroom, and she stood in the doorway, the letter open in her hand. She was dressed for dinner. Perhaps it was the contrast of her skin against the mourning that made her look so white.

“What have you been doing?” she said.

Her voice sounded quite different. Oddly strained.

“Doing?” I said. “Nothing. Why?”

“Don’t lie, Philip. You don’t know how.”

I stood most wretchedly before the fire, staring anywhere but in those searching accusing eyes.

“You have been to Pelyn,” she said; “you rode over there today to see your guardian.”

She was right. I was the most hopeless useless liar. At any rate, to her.

“I may have done,” I said. “What if I did?”

“You made him write this letter,” she said.

“No,” I said, swallowing, “I did nothing of the sort. He wrote it of his own accord. There was business to discuss, and it so happened that in talking various legal matters came to the fore, and…”

“And you told him your cousin Rachel proposed giving lessons in Italian, isn’t that the truth?” she said.

I felt hot and cold and miserably ill at ease.

“Not exactly,” I said.

“Surely you realized I was only joking when I told you that?” she said. If she was joking, I thought, why then must she be so angry with me now?

“You don’t realize what you have done,” she said; “you make me feel utterly ashamed.” She went and stood by the window, with her back to me. “If you wish to humiliate me,” she said, “by heaven you have gone the right way about it.”

“I don’t see,” I said, “why you have to be so proud.”

“Proud?” She turned round, her eyes very dark and large, and looked at me in fury. “How dare you call me proud?” she said. I stared back at her. I think I was amazed that anyone who a moment or two before had been laughing with me could suddenly become so angry. Then, to my own very great surprise, my nervousness went from me. I walked towards her, and stood beside her.

“I shall call you proud,” I said, “I shall go further, and I shall call you damnably proud. It is not you who is likely to be humiliated but me. It was not a joke, when you said that about giving lessons in Italian. Your answer came far too swiftly for it to be a joke. You said it, because you meant it.”

“And if I did mean it?” she said. “Is there anything shameful in giving lessons in Italian?”

“In the ordinary sense, no,” I said, “but in your case, yes. For Mrs. Ambrose Ashley to give lessons in Italian is shameful; it reflects upon the husband who neglected to make provision for her in his will. And I, Philip Ashley, his heir, won’t permit it. You will take that allowance every quarter, cousin Rachel, and when you draw the money from the bank, please remember that it does not come from the estate, nor from the heir to the estate, but from your husband, Ambrose Ashley.”

A wave of anger, as great as hers, had come over me as I spoke. I was damned if any creature, small and frail, should stand there and accuse me of humiliating her; and I was damned furthermore if she should refuse the money that belonged to her by right.

“Well? Do you understand what I have been saying to you?” I said.

For one moment I thought she was going to hit me. She stood quite still, staring up at me. Then her eyes filled with tears, and pushing past me she went into the bedroom and slammed the door. I walked downstairs. I went to the dining room and rang the bell and told Seecombe that I thought Mrs. Ashley would not be down for dinner. I poured myself out a glass of claret, and sat down alone at the head of the table. Christ! I thought, so that’s how women behave. I had never felt so angry, nor so spent. Long days in the open, working with the men at harvest time; arguments with tenants behindhand with their rent or involved in some quarrel with a neighbor which I had to settle; nothing of this could compare to five minutes with a woman whose mood of gaiety had turned in a single instant to hostility. And was the final weapon always tears? Because they knew full well the effect upon the watcher? I had another glass of claret. As to Seecombe, who hovered at my elbow, I could have wished him a world away.

“Is Madam indisposed, sir, do you think?” he asked me.

I might have told him that Madam was not so much indisposed as in a fury, and would probably ring her bell in a moment and demand Wellington and the carriage to take her back to Plymouth.

“No,” I said, “her hair is not yet dry. You had better tell John to take a tray up to the boudoir.”

This, I supposed, was what men faced when they were married. Slammed doors, and silence. Dinner alone. So that appetite, whipped up by the long day’s outing, and the relaxation of the bathtub, and the pleasure of a tranquil evening by the fire passed in intermittent conversation, watching with lazy ease hands that were white and small against embroidery, had to simmer down. With what cheerfulness had I dressed for dinner and walked along the corridor, knocked on the boudoir door and found her sitting on the stool in that white wrapper, with her hair pinned on top of her head. How easy the mood we shared, making a kind of intimacy that gave a glow to the whole prospect of the evening. And now, alone at the table, with a beefsteak that might have been shoe-leather for all I cared. And what was she doing? Lying on her bed? Were the candles snuffed, the curtains drawn, and the room in darkness? Or was the mood over now, and did she sit sedately in the boudoir, dry-eyed, eating her dinner off the tray, to make a show for Seecombe? I did not know. I did not care. Ambrose had been so right when he used to say that women were a race apart. One thing was certain now. I should never marry…

Dinner over, I went and sat in the library. I lit my pipe, and put my feet up on the fire-irons, and composed myself to that after dinner slumber that can be sweet and consoling upon occasion, but tonight lacked every charm. I had become used to the sight of her in the chair opposite my own, her shoulders turned so that the light fell upon her work, and Don at her feet; now the chair looked strangely empty. Well, to hell with it, that a woman could so disturb the close of day. I got up and found a book upon the shelves, and turned the pages. Then I must have dozed, because when I looked up again the hands of the clock in the corner were a little short of nine. To bed then, and to sleep. No sense in sitting on, with the fire gone out. I took the dogs round to the kennels—the weather had changed, it was blowing and spitting rain—and then bolted up and went to my room. I was just about to throw my coat off on the chair when I saw a note, placed beside the bowl of flowers on the table next to my bed. I went over to the table, and picked up the note and read it. It was from my cousin Rachel.

“Dear Philip,” it said, “if you can bring yourself to do so, please forgive me for my rudeness to you tonight. It was unpardonable of me to behave so in your house. I have no excuse, except that I am not entirely myself these days; emotion lies too near the surface. I have written to your guardian, thanking him for his letter and accepting the allowance. It was generous and dear of you both to think of me. Good night. Rachel.”

I read the letter twice, and then put it in my pocket. Was her pride spent then, and the anger too? Did these feelings dissolve with the tears? A load went from me, that she had accepted the allowance. I had visualized another visit to the bank, and further explanations, countermanding my first orders; and then interviews with my godfather, and arguments, and the whole business ending most wretchedly with my cousin Rachel sweeping out of the house and taking herself to London, there to live in lodgings giving Italian lessons.

Had it cost her much to write that note, I wondered? The swing from pride to humility? I hated the fact that she had to do so. For the first time since he had died, I found myself blaming Ambrose for what had happened. Surely he might have taken some thought for the future. Illness and sudden death can come to anyone. He must have known that by making no provision he left his wife to our mercy, to our charity. A letter home to my godfather would have spared all this. I had a vision of her sitting down in aunt Phoebe’s boudoir and writing me this note. I wondered if she had left the boudoir yet and gone to bed. I hesitated for a moment, and then went along the corridor and stood under the archway by her rooms.

The door of the boudoir was open, the door of the bedroom shut. I knocked upon the bedroom door. For a moment no answer came, and then she said, “Who is it?”

I did not answer “Philip.” I opened the door, and went inside. The room was in darkness, and the light from my candle showed the curtains of the bed to be partly drawn. I could see the outline of her form under the coverlet.

“I have just read your note,” I said. “I wanted to thank you for it, and to say good night.”

I thought she might sit up and light her candle, but she did not do so. She lay just as she was, on her pillows, behind the curtains.

“I wanted you to know also,” I said, “that I had no idea of patronizing you. Please believe that.”

The voice that came from the curtains was strangely quiet and subdued.

“I never thought you had,” she answered.

We were both silent an instant, and then she said, “It would not worry me to give Italian lessons. I have no pride about that sort of thing. What I could not bear was when you said my doing so would reflect badly upon Ambrose.”

“It was true,” I said, “but forget it now. We need not think of it again.”

“It was dear of you, and very like you,” she said, “to go riding over to Pelyn to see your guardian. I must have seemed so ungracious, so completely lacking in gratitude. I can’t forgive myself.” The voice, so near to tears again, did something to me. A kind of tightness came to my throat and to my belly.

“I would much rather that you hit me,” I told her, “than that you cried.”

I heard her move in her bed, and feel for a handkerchief and blow her nose. The gesture and the sound, so commonplace and simple, happening there in the darkness behind the curtains, made me even weaker in the belly than before.

Presently she said, “I will take the allowance, Philip, but I must not trespass on your hospitality after this week. I think next Monday, if it will suit you, I should leave here and move elsewhere, perhaps to London.”

A blank feeling came over me at her words.

“Go to London?” I said. “But why? What for?”

“I only came for a few days,” she answered. “I have already stayed longer than I intended.”

“But you have not met everybody yet,” I said, “you have not done everything you are supposed to do.”

“Does it matter?” she said. “After all—it seems so pointless.”

How unlike her it sounded, that lack of spirit in her voice.

“I thought you liked it,” I said, “going about the estate, and visiting the tenants. Each day we went about it together you seemed so happy. And today, putting in those shrubs with Tamlyn. Was it all show, and were you just being polite?”

She did not answer for a moment, and then she said, “Sometimes, Philip, I think you lack all understanding.”

Probably I did. I felt sullen and hurt and I did not care.

“All right,” I said; “if you want to go, do so. It will cause a lot of talk, but no matter.”

“I should have thought,” she said, “that it would cause more talk if I stayed.”

“Talk if you stayed?” I said. “What do you mean? Don’t you realize that by rights you belong here, that if Ambrose had not been such a lunatic this would have been your home?”

“Oh, God,” she flared out at me in sudden anger, “why else do you think I came?”

I had put my foot in it again. Blundering and tactless, I had said all the wrong things. I felt suddenly hopeless and inadequate. I went up to the bed, and pulled aside the curtains, and looked down at her. She was lying propped against her pillows, her hands clasped in front of her. She was wearing something white, frilled at the neck like a choirboy’s surplice, and her hair was loose, tied behind with a piece of ribbon, as I remembered Louise’s as a child. It shook me, and surprised me, that she should look so young.

“Listen,” I said, “I don’t know why you came, or what were your motives in doing all you have done. I don’t know anything about you, or about any woman. All I know is that I like it now you are here. And I don’t want you to go. Is that complicated?”

She had put her hands up to her face, almost in defense, as if she thought I meant to harm her.

“Yes,” she said, “very.”

“Then it is you who make it so,” I said, “not I.”

I folded my arms and looked at her, assuming an ease of manner I was far from feeling. Yet in a sense by standing there, while she lay in bed, I had her at a disadvantage. I did not see how a woman with her hair loose, becoming a girl again without a woman’s status, could be angry.

I saw her eyes waver. She was searching in her mind for some excuse, some new reason why she should be gone, and in a sudden flash I hit upon a master stroke of strategy.

“You told me this evening,” I said, “that I should have a designer down from London, to lay out the gardens. I know that was what Ambrose always intended to do. The fact remains that I don’t know of one, and should go mad with irritation anyway, if I had to have such a fellow about me. If you have any feeling for the place, knowing what it meant to Ambrose, you would remain here for a few months and do it for me.”

The shaft struck home. She stared in front of her, playing with her ring. I had remarked before that when preoccupied this was a trick of hers. I pushed on with my advantage.

“I never could follow the plans that Ambrose used to draw,” I said to her, “nor Tamlyn either, for that matter. He works wonders, I know, but only under direction. Time and again he has come to me this past year and asked for advice which I have been quite at a loss to give him. If you remained here—just for the autumn, when so much planting needs to be done—it would help us all.”

She twisted the ring back and forth upon her finger. “I think I should ask your godfather what he feels,” she said to me.

“It does not concern my godfather,” I said. “What do you take me for, a schoolboy under age? There is only one consideration, whether you yourself desire to stay. If you really want to go, I cannot keep you.”

She said, surprisingly, in a still small voice, “Why do you ask that? You know I want to stay.”

Sweet heaven, how could I know? She had intimated the exact opposite.

“Then you will remain, for a little while,” I said, “to do the garden? That is settled, and you won’t go back on your word?”

“I will remain,” she said, “for a little while.”

I had difficulty in not smiling. Her eyes were serious, and I had the feeling that if I smiled she would change her mind. Inwardly, I triumphed.

“Very well, then,” I said, “I will bid you good night and leave you. What about your letter to my godfather? Do you want me to put it in the postbag?”

“Seecombe has taken it,” she said.

“Then you will sleep now, and not be angry with me anymore?”

“I wasn’t angry, Philip.”

“But you were. I thought you were going to hit me.”

She looked up at me. “Sometimes you are so stupid,” she said, “that I think one day I shall. Come here.”

I drew closer, my knee touched the coverlet.

“Bend down,” she said.

She took my face between her hands and kissed me.

“Now go to bed,” she said, “like a good boy, and sleep well.” She pushed me away, and drew her curtains.

I stumbled out of the blue bedroom with my candlestick, light-headed and somehow dazed, as though I had drunk brandy, and it seemed to me that the advantage I had thought to have over her, as I stood above her and she lay on her pillows, was now completely lost. The last word, and the last gesture too, had been with her. The little girl look and the choirboy surplice had misled me. She was a woman all the time. For all that, I was happy. The misunderstanding was now over, and she had promised to remain. There had been no more tears.

Instead of going immediately to bed I went down to the library once again, to write a line to my godfather and to reassure him that all had gone off well. He need never know of the troublous evening spent by the pair of us. I scribbled my letter, and went into the hall to place it in the postbag for the morning.

Seecombe had left the bag for me, as was his custom, upon the table in the hall, with the key beside it. When I opened up the bag two other letters fell into my hand, both written by my cousin Rachel. One was addressed to my godfather Nick Kendall, as she had told me. The second letter was addressed to Signor Rainaldi in Florence. I stared at it a moment, then put it back with the other in the postbag. It was foolish of me, perhaps, senseless and absurd; the man was her friend, why should she not write a letter to him? Yet, as I went upstairs to bed, I felt exactly as if she had hit me after all.