My Cousin Rachel Chapter 14

The following day when she came downstairs, and I joined her in the garden, my cousin Rachel was as happy and unconcerned as though there had never been a rift between us. The only difference in her manner to me was that she seemed more gentle, and more tender; she teased me less, laughed with me and not at me, and kept asking my opinion as to the planting of the shrubs, not for the sake of my knowledge but for my future pleasure when I should look upon them.

“Do what you want to do,” I told her; “bid the men cut the hedgerows, fell the trees, heap up the banks yonder with shrubs, whatever you fancy will do well, I have no eye for line.”

“But I want the result to please you, Philip,” she said. “All this belongs to you, and one day will belong to your children. What if I make changes in the grounds, and when it is done you are displeased?”

“I shan’t be displeased,” I said; “and stop talking about my children. I am quite resolved to remain a bachelor.”

“Which is essentially selfish,” she said, “and very stupid of you.”

“I think not,” I answered. “I think by remaining a bachelor I shall be spared much distress and anxiety of mind.”

“Have you ever thought what you would lose?”

“I have a shrewd guess,” I told her, “that the blessings of married bliss are not all they are claimed to be. If it’s warmth and comfort that a man wants, and something beautiful to look upon, he can get all that from his own house, if he loves it well.”

To my astonishment she laughed so much at my remark that Tamlyn and the gardeners, working at the far end of the plantation, raised their heads to look at us.

“One day,” she said to me, “when you fall in love, I shall remind you of those words. Warmth and comfort from stone walls, at twenty-four. Oh, Philip!” And the bubble of laughter came from her again.

I could not see that it was so very funny.

“I know quite well what you mean,” I said; “it just happens that I have never been moved that way.”

“That’s very evident,” she said. “You must be a heartbreak to the neighborhood. That poor Louise…”

But I was not going to be led into a discussion on Louise, nor again a dissertation upon love and matrimony. I was much more interested to watch her work upon the garden.

October set in fine and mild, and for the first three weeks of it we had barely no rain at all, so that Tamlyn and the men, under the supervision of my cousin Rachel, were able to go far ahead with the work in the plantation. We managed also to visit in succession all the tenants upon the estate, which gave great satisfaction, as I knew it would. I had known every one of them since boyhood, and had been used to calling in upon them every so often, for it was part of my work to do so. But it was a new experience for my cousin Rachel, brought up in Italy to a very different life. Her manner with the people could not have been more right or proper, and it was a fascination to watch her with them. The blend of graciousness and cameraderie made them immediately look up to her, yet put them at their ease. She asked all the right questions, replied with the right answers. Also—and this endeared her to many of them—there was the understanding she seemed to have of all their ailments, and the remedies she produced. “With my love for gardening,” she told them, “goes a knowledge of herbs. In Italy we always made a study of these things.” And she would produce balm, from some plant, to rub upon wheezing chests, and oil from another, as a measure against burns; and she would instruct them too how to make tisana, as a remedy for indigestion and for sleeplessness—the best nightcap in the world, she said to them—and tell them how the juice of certain fruits could cure almost any ill from a sore throat to a sty on the eyelid.

“You know what will happen,” I told her; “you will take the place of midwife in the district. They will send for you in the night to deliver babies, and once that starts there will be no peace for you at all.”

“There is a tisana for that too,” she said, “made from the leaves of raspberries and of nettles. If a woman drinks that for six months before the birth, she has her baby without pain.”

“That’s witchcraft,” I said. “They wouldn’t think it right to do so.”

“What nonsense! Why should women suffer?” said my cousin Rachel.

Sometimes, in the afternoons, she would be called upon by the county, as I had warned her. And she was as successful with the “gentry,” as Seecombe called them, as she was with the humbler folk. Seecombe, I soon came to realize, now lived in a seventh heaven. When the carriages drove up to the door upon a Tuesday or a Thursday, at three o’clock of an afternoon, he would be waiting in the hall. He still wore mourning, but his coat was new, kept only for these occasions. The luckless John would have the task of opening the front door to the visitors, then of passing them onto his superior, who with slow and stately step (I would have it all from John afterwards) preceded the visitors through the hall to the drawing room. Throwing the door open with a flourish (this from my cousin Rachel) he would announce the names like the toastmaster at a banquet. Beforehand, she told me, he would discuss with her the likelihood of this or that visitor appearing, and give her a brief résumé of their family history up to date. He was generally right in his prophecy of who would appear, and we wondered whether there was some method of sending messages from household to household through the servants’ hall to give due warning, even as savages beat tom-toms in a jungle. For instance, Seecombe would tell my cousin Rachel that he had it for certain that Mrs. Tremayne had ordered her carriage for Thursday afternoon, and that she would bring with her the married daughter Mrs. Gough, and the unmarried daughter Miss Isobel; and that my cousin Rachel must beware when she talked to Miss Isobel, as the young lady suffered from an affliction of the speech. Or again, that upon a Tuesday old Lady Penryn would be likely to appear, because she always visited her granddaughter upon that day, who lived only ten miles distant from us; and my cousin Rachel must remember on no account to mention foxes before her, as Lady Penryn had been frightened by a fox before her eldest son was born, and he carried the stigma as a birthmark upon his left shoulder to this day.

“And Philip,” said my cousin Rachel afterwards, “the whole time she was with me I had to head the conversation away from hunting. It was no use, she came back to it like a mouse sniffing at cheese. And finally, to keep her quiet, I had to invent a tale of chasing wild cats in the Alps, which is an impossibility, and something no one has done.”

There was always some story of the callers with which she greeted me when I returned home, slinking by the back way through the woods when the last carriage had bowled safely down the drive; and we would laugh together, and she would smooth her hair before the mirror and straighten the cushions, while I polished off the last of the sweet cakes that had been put before the visitors. The whole thing would seem like a game, like a conspiracy; yet I think she was happy there, sitting in the drawing room making conversation. People and their lives had interest for her, how they thought, and what they did; and she used to say to me, “But you don’t understand, Philip, this is all so new after the very different society in Florence. I have always wondered about life in England, in the country. Now I am beginning to know. And I love every minute of it.”

I would take a lump out of the sugar bowl, and crunch it, and cut myself a slice from the seedcake.

“I can think of nothing more monotonous,” I told her, “than discussing generalities with anyone, in Florence or in Cornwall.”

“Ah, but you are hopeless,” she said, “and will end up very narrow-minded, thinking of nothing but turnips and of kale.”

I would fling myself down in the chair, and on purpose to try her put my muddy boots up on the stool, watching her with one eye. She never reproved me, and if she had noticed did not appear to do so.

“Go on,” I would say, “tell me the latest scandal in the county.”

“But if you are not interested,” she would answer, “why should I do so?”

“Because I like to hear you talk.”

So before going upstairs to change for dinner she would regale me with county gossip, what there was of it—the latest betrothals, marriages, and deaths, the new babies on the way; she appeared to glean more from twenty minutes’ conversation with a stranger than I would from an acquaintance after a lifetime.

“As I suspected,” she told me, “you are the despair of every mother within fifty miles.”

“Why so?”

“Because you do not choose to look at any of their daughters. So tall, so presentable, so eligible in every way. Pray, Mrs. Ashley, do prevail upon your cousin to go out more.”

“And what is your answer?”

“That you find all the warmth and entertainment that you need within these four walls. On second thoughts,” she added, “that might be misconstrued. I must watch my tongue.”

“I don’t mind what you tell them,” I said, “as long as you do not involve me in an invitation. I have no desire to look at anybody’s daughter.”

“There is heavy betting upon Louise,” she said; “quite a number say that she will get you in the end. And the third Miss Pascoe has a sporting chance.”

“Great heaven!” I exclaimed. “Belinda Pascoe? I’d as soon marry Katie Searle, who does the washing. Really, cousin Rachel, you might protect me. Why not tell these gossips I’m a recluse and spend all my spare time scribbling Latin verses? That might shake them.”

“Nothing will shake them,” she answered. “The thought that a good-looking young bachelor should like solitude and verse would make you sound all the more romantic. These things whet appetite.”

“Then they’ll feed elsewhere,” I replied. “What staggers me is the way in which the minds of women in this part of the world—perhaps it’s the same everywhere—run perpetually upon marriage.”

“They haven’t much else to think about,” she said; “the choice of fare is small. I do not escape discussion, I can tell you. A list of eligible widowers has been given me. There is a peer down in west Cornwall declared to be the very thing. Fifty, an heir, and both daughters married.”

“Not old St. Ives?” I said in tones of outrage.

“Why, yes, I believe that is the name. They say he’s charming.”

“Charming, is he?” I said to her. “He’s always drunk by midday, and creeps around the passages after the maids. Billy Rowe, from the Barton, had a niece in service there. She had to come back home, she grew so scared.”

“Who’s talking gossip now?” said cousin Rachel. “Poor Lord St. Ives, perhaps if he had a wife he wouldn’t creep about the passages. It would, of course, depend upon the wife.”

“Well, you’re not going to marry him,” I said with firmness.

“You could at least invite him here to dinner?” she suggested, her eyes full of that solemnity that I had learned now spelled mischief. “We could have a party, Philip. The prettiest young women for you, and the best-favored widowers for me. But I think I have made my choice. I think, if I am ever put to it, I will take your godfather, Mr. Kendall. He has a fair direct way of speaking, which I much admire.”

Maybe she did it on purpose, but I rose to the bait, exploding.

“You cannot seriously mean it?” I said. “Marry my godfather? Why damn it, cousin Rachel, he’s nearing sixty; and he’s never without a chill or some complaint.”

“That means he doesn’t find warmth or comfort inside his house as you do,” she answered me.

I knew then that she was laughing, so laughed with her; but afterwards I wondered about it with mistrust. Certainly my godfather was most courteous when he came on Sundays, and they got on capitally together. We had dined there once or twice, and my godfather had sparkled in a way unknown to me. But he had been a widower for ten years. Surely he could not entertain so incredible an idea as to fancy his chance with my cousin Rachel? And surely she would not accept? I went hot at the thought. My cousin Rachel at Pelyn. My cousin Rachel, Mrs. Ashley, becoming Mrs. Kendall. How monstrous! If anything so presumptuous was passing through the old man’s mind I was damned if I would continue inviting him to Sunday dinner. Yet to break the invitation would be to break the routine of years. It was not possible. Therefore I must continue as we had always done, but the next Sunday, when my godfather on the right of my cousin Rachel bent his deaf ear to her, and suddenly sat back, laughing and saying, “Oh, capital, capital,” I wondered sulkily what it portended and why it was that they laughed so much together. This, I thought to myself, is another trick of women, to throw a jest in the air that left a sting behind it.

She sat there, at Sunday dinner, looking remarkably well and in high good humor, with my godfather on her right and the vicar on her left, none of them at a loss for conversation, and for no good reason I turned sulky and silent, just as Louise had done that first Sunday, and our end of the table had all the appearance of a Quaker meeting. Louise sat looking at her plate, and I at mine, and I suddenly lifted my eyes and saw Belinda Pascoe, with round eyes, gaping at me; and remembering the gossip of the countryside I became more dumb than ever. Our silence spurred my cousin Rachel to greater effort, in order, I suppose, to cover it; and she and my godfather and the vicar tried to cap each other, quoting verse, while I became more and more sulky, and thankful for the absence of Mrs. Pascoe through indisposition. Louise did not matter. I was not obliged to talk to Louise.

But when they had all gone my cousin Rachel took me to task. “When,” she said, “I entertain your friends, I look to have a little support from you. What was wrong, Philip? You sat there scowling, with a mulish face, and never addressed a word to either neighbor. Those poor girls…” And she shook her head at me, displeased.

“There was so much gaiety at your end,” I answered her, “that I saw no point in contributing to it. All that nonsense about ‘I love you’ in Greek. And the vicar telling you that ‘my heart’s delight’ sounded very well in Hebrew.”

“Well, so it did,” she said. “It came rolling off his tongue, and I was most impressed. And your godfather wants to show me the beacon head by moonlight. Once seen, he tells me, never forgotten.”

“Well, he’s not showing it to you,” I replied. “The beacon is my property. There is some old earthwork that belongs to the Pelyn estate. Let him show you that. It’s covered thick in brambles.” And I threw a lump of coal upon the fire, hoping the clatter bothered her.

“I don’t know what’s come over you,” she said; “you are losing your sense of humor.” And she patted me on the shoulder and went upstairs. That was the infuriating thing about a woman. Always the last word. Leaving one to grapple with ill-temper, and she herself serene. A woman, it seemed, was never in the wrong. Or if she was, she twisted the fault to her advantage, making it seem otherwise. She would fling these pinpricks in the air, these hints of moonlight strolls with my godfather, or some other expedition, a visit to Lostwithiel market, and ask me in all seriousness whether she should wear the new bonnet that had come by parcel post from London—the veil had a wider mesh and did not shroud her, and my godfather had told her it became her well. And when I fell to sulking, saying I did not care whether she concealed her features with a mask, her mood soared to serenity yet higher—the conversation was at dinner on the Monday—and while I sat frowning she carried on her talk with Seecombe, making me seem more sulky than I was.

Then in the library afterwards, with no observer present, she would relent; the serenity was with her still, but a kind of tenderness came too. She neither laughed at me for lack of humor, nor chided me for sullenness. She asked me to hold her silks for her, to choose the colors I liked best, because she wanted to work a covering for me to use on the chair in the estate office. And quietly, without irritating, without probing, she asked me questions about my day, whom I had seen, what I had done, so that all sulkiness went from me and I was eased and rested, and I wondered, watching her hands with the silks, smoothing them and touching them, why it could not have been thus in the first place; why first the pinprick, the barb of irritation to disturb the atmosphere, giving herself the trouble to make it calm again? It was as if my change of mood afforded her delight, but why it should do so I had no remote idea. I only knew that when she teased me I disliked it, and it hurt. And when she was tender I was happy and at peace.

By the end of the month the fine weather broke. It rained for three days without stopping, and there was no gardening to be done, no work for me on the estate, riding to and fro to be soaked to the skin, and all callers from the county were kept within their doors, like the rest of us. It was Seecombe who suggested, what I think the pair of us had both been shirking, that the time was opportune to go through Ambrose’s effects. He broached it one morning as my cousin Rachel and I stood by the library window, staring out at the driving rain.

“The office for me,” I had just observed, “and a day in the boudoir for you. What about those boxes down from London? More gowns to sort, and try upon your person, and return again?”

“Not gowns,” she said, “but coverings for curtains. I think Aunt Phoebe’s eye lacked luster. The blue bedroom should live up to its name. At present it is gray, not blue at all. And the quilting to the bed has moth, but don’t tell Seecombe. The moth of years. I have chosen you new curtains and new quilting.”

It was then that Seecombe entered, and seeing us apparently without employment said, “The weather being so inclement, sir, I had thought the boys might be put to extra cleaning within doors. Your room needs attention. But they cannot dust there while Mr. Ashley’s trunks and boxes cover the floor.”

I glanced at her, fearing this lack of tact might wound her, that she might turn away, but to my surprise she took it well.

“You are quite right, Seecombe,” she said; “the boys cannot clean the room until the boxes are unpacked. We have left it far too long. Well, Philip, what about it?”

“Very well,” I said, “if you are agreeable. Let us have the fire lit, and when the room is warm we’ll go upstairs.”

I think that both of us tried to conceal our feelings from the other. We forced a sort of brightness into our behavior and into our conversation. For my sake, she was determined not to show distress. And I, wishing to spare the same for her, assumed a heartiness utterly foreign to my nature. The rain was lashing at the windows of my old room, and a patch of damp had appeared upon the ceiling. The fire, that had not been lit since last winter, burned with a false crackle. The boxes stood in a line upon the floor, waiting to be opened; and on top of one was the well remembered travel rug of dark blue, with the yellow monogram “A.A.” in large letters in one corner. I had the sudden recollection of putting it over his knees that last day, when he drove away.

My cousin Rachel broke the silence. “Come,” she said, “shall we open the clothes trunk first?”

Her voice was purposely hard and practical. I handed her the keys, which she had left in Seecombe’s charge on her arrival.

“Just as you will,” I said.

She put the key in the lock, and turned it, and threw open the lid. His old dressing gown was on the top. I knew it well. It was of heavy silk in a dark red color. His slippers were there too, long and flat. I stood there staring at them, and it was like walking back into the past. I remembered him passing into my room while he was shaving of a morning, the lather on his face. “Look, boy, I’ve been thinking…” Into this room, where we were standing now. Wearing that dressing gown, wearing those slippers. My cousin Rachel took them from the trunk.

“What shall we do with them?” she said, and the voice that had been hard was lower now, subdued.

“I don’t know,” I said; “it’s for you to say.”

“Would you wear them, if I gave them to you?” she asked.

It was strange. I had taken his hat. I had taken his stick. His old shooting coat with the leather at the elbows that he had left behind when he went upon his last journey, that I wore constantly. Yet these things, the dressing gown, the slippers—it was almost as though we had opened up his coffin and looked upon him dead.

“No,” I said, “no, I don’t think so.”

She said nothing. She put them on the bed. She came next to a suit of clothing. A lightweight suit—he must have worn it in hot weather. It was not familiar to me, but she must have known it well. It was creased from lying in the trunk. She took it out and placed it with the dressing gown upon the bed. “It should be pressed,” she said. Suddenly she began lifting the things from the trunk very swiftly and putting them in a pile, one on top of the other, barely touching them.

“I think,” she said, “that if you don’t want them, Philip, the people on the estate here, who loved him, might like to have them. You will know best what to give, and to whom.”

I think she did not see what she was doing. She took them from the trunk in a sort of frenzy, while I stood by and watched her.

“The trunk?” she said. “A trunk is always useful. You could do with the trunk?” She looked up at me, and her voice faltered.

Suddenly she was in my arms, her head against my chest.

“Oh, Philip,” she said, “forgive me. I should have let you and Seecombe do it. I was a fool to come upstairs.”

It was queer. Like holding a child. Like holding a wounded animal. I touched her hair, and put my cheek against her head.

“It’s all right,” I said, “don’t cry. Go back to the library. I can finish it alone.”

“No,” she said, “it’s so weak of me, so stupid. It’s just as bad for you as it is for me. You loved him so…”

I kept moving my lips against her hair. It was a strange feeling. And she was very small, standing there against me.

“I don’t mind,” I said; “a man can do these things. It’s not easy for a woman. Let me do it, Rachel, go downstairs.”

She stood a little way apart and wiped her eyes with her handkerchief.

“No,” she said, “I’m better now. It won’t happen again. And I have unpacked the clothes. But if you will give them to the people on the estate, I shall be grateful. And anything you want for yourself, wear it. Never be afraid to wear it. I shan’t mind, I shall be glad.”

The boxes of books were nearer to the fire. I brought a chair and placed it for her, close to the warmth, and knelt beside the other trunks and opened them, one by one.

I hoped she had not noticed—I had barely noticed it myself—that for the first time I had not called her cousin, but Rachel. I don’t know how it happened. I think it must have been because standing there, with my arms about her, she had been so much smaller than myself.

The books did not have the personal touch about them that the clothes had done. There were old favorites that I knew, with which he always traveled, and these she gave to me to keep beside my bed. There were his cuff links, too, his studs, his watch, his pen—all these she pressed upon me, and I was glad of them. Some of the books I did not know at all. She explained them to me, picking up first one volume, then another, and now no longer was the task so sad; this book, she said, he had picked up in Rome, it was a bargain, he was pleased, and that one there, with the old binding, and the other beside it, came from Florence. She described the place where he had bought them, and the old man who had sold them to him, and it seemed, as she chatted to me, that the strain had lifted, it had gone with the tears she had wiped away. We laid the books, one after the other, upon the floor, and I fetched a duster for her and she dusted them. Sometimes she read a passage out to me and told me how this paragraph had pleased Ambrose; or she showed me a picture, an engraving, and I saw her smiling at some well-remembered page.

She came upon a volume of drawings of the layout of gardens. “This will be very useful to us,” she said, and rising from her chair took it to the window to see it better in the light.

I opened another book at random. A piece of paper fell from between the leaves. It had Ambrose’s handwriting upon it. It seemed like the middle scrap of a letter, torn from its context and forgotten. “It’s a disease, of course, I have often heard of it, like kleptomania or some other malady, and has no doubt been handed down to her from her spendthrift father, Alexander Coryn. How long she has been a victim of it I cannot say, perhaps always; certainly it explains much of what has disturbed me hitherto in all this business. This much I do know, dear boy, that I cannot any longer, nay I dare not, let her have command over my purse, or I shall be ruined, and the estate will suffer. It is imperative that you warn Kendall, if by any chance…” The sentence broke off. There was no end to it. The scrap of paper was not dated. The handwriting was normal. Just then she came back from the window, and I crumpled the piece of paper in my hand.

“What have you there?” she said.

“Nothing,” I said.

I threw the piece of paper on the fire. She saw it burn. She saw the handwriting on the paper curl and flicker in the flame.

“That was Ambrose’s writing,” she said. “What was it? Was it a letter?”

“It was just some note he had made,” I said, “on an old scrap of paper.” I felt my face burn in the light of the fire.

Then I reached for another volume from the trunk. She did the same. We continued sorting the books, side by side, together; but the silence had come between us.