My Cousin Rachel Chapter 15

We had finished sorting the books by midday. Seecombe sent John up to us, and young Arthur, to know if anything needed carrying downstairs before they went off to their dinner.

“Leave the clothes on the bed, John,” I said, “and put a covering on top of them. I shall want Seecombe to help me make packages of them by and by. Take this pile of books down to the library.”

“And these to the boudoir, Arthur, please,” said my cousin Rachel.

It was her first utterance since I had burned the scrap of paper.

“It will be all right, will it, Philip,” she asked, “if I keep the books on gardens in my room?”

“Why, yes, of course,” I answered. “All the books are yours, you know that.”

“No,” she said, “no, Ambrose would have wanted the others in the library.” She stood up, and smoothed her dress, and gave John the duster.

“Some cold luncheon is laid below, madam,” he said.

“Thank you, John. I am not hungry.”

I hesitated, standing by the open door, after the boys had disappeared carrying the books.

“Will you not come down to the library,” I asked, “and help me put away the books?”

“I think not,” she said, then paused a moment, as if to add something, but did not do so. Then she walked along the corridor to her room.

I ate my lunch alone, staring out of the dining room windows. It was still raining fast. No use attempting to go out of doors, there was nothing to be done. I had better finish the task of sorting the clothes, with Seecombe to help me. It would please him to be asked advice. What should go to the Barton, what to Trenant, what to the East Lodge; everything to be carefully chosen so that no one should take offense at what he had. It would employ the pair of us all afternoon. I tried to keep my mind upon the business; yet, nagging like a pain in the tooth that flares up suddenly and dies again, my thoughts would be wrenched back to the scrap of paper. What had it been doing between the pages of that book, and how long had it lain there, torn, forgotten? Six months, a year, or longer? Had Ambrose started upon a letter to me which never reached its destination; or were there other bits of paper, part of the same letter, which for some unknown reason were still lying between the pages of a book? The letter must have been written before his illness. The writing was firm and clear. Therefore last winter, last autumn possibly… I was swept by a kind of shame. What business was it of mine to probe back into that past, to wonder about a letter that had never reached me? It was not my affair. I wished to heaven I had not come upon it.

All afternoon Seecombe and I sorted the clothes, and he put them into packages while I wrote notes of explanation to go with them. He suggested that the parcels should be given out at Christmas, which seemed to me a sound idea, and one that would appeal to the tenants. When we had finished I went downstairs again to the library, and put the books into the shelves. I found myself shaking the leaves of each volume, before I placed it on the shelf; and as I did so I felt furtive, like someone guilty of a petty crime.

“… a disease, of course, like kleptomania, or some other malady…” Why did I have to remember those words? What did Ambrose mean?

I reached for a dictionary, and looked up kleptomania. “An irresistible tendency to theft in persons not tempted to do it by needy circumstances.” That was not his accusation. His accusation was one of prodigality, of extravagance. How could extravagance be a malady? It was totally unlike Ambrose, the most generous of men, to accuse anyone of such a habit. As I put the dictionary back upon the shelf the door opened, and my cousin Rachel came into the room.

I felt as guilty as if she had caught me in deceit. “I have just finished putting away the books,” I said, and I wondered if my voice sounded as false to her as it did to me.

“So I see,” she answered, and she went and sat down by the fire. She was ready changed for dinner. I had not realized it was so late.

“We have sorted the clothes,” I said. “Seecombe was very helpful. We think it a good plan, if you approve, that the things should be given out at Christmas.”

“Yes,” she said, “so he told me just now. I think it most appropriate.”

I did not know if it was my manner, or hers, but there was a kind of constraint between us.

“It hasn’t ceased raining for the day,” I said.

“No,” she answered.

I glanced at my hands, dusty from the books. “If you will excuse me,” I said, “I will go and wash, and change for dinner.” I went upstairs, and dressed, and when I came down again dinner was upon the table. We took our places in silence. Seecombe, from long habit, would break in upon our conversation very often, at dinnertime, when he had something that he wished to say, and tonight, when we had nearly finished, he said to my cousin Rachel, “Have you shown Mr. Philip the new coverings, madam?”

“No, Seecombe,” she answered, “there hasn’t yet been time. But if he cares to see them I can do so after dinner. Perhaps John would carry them down to the library.”

“Coverings?” I said, puzzled. “What covers are they?”

“Don’t you remember?” she answered. “I told you I had ordered coverings for the blue bedroom. Seecombe has seen them, and is very much impressed.”

“Oh, yes,” I said, “yes, I remember now.”

“I have seen nothing like them in my life, sir,” said Seecombe, “certainly no mansion in these parts has any furnishings to touch them.”

“Ah, but then the stuff is imported from Italy, Seecombe,” said my cousin Rachel. “There is only one place in London where it is procurable. I was told of it in Florence. Would you like to see the coverings, Philip, or does it not interest you?”

She put the question to me half hopefully, half anxiously, as though wishing for my opinion, yet fearing I should be bored.

I don’t know how it was, but I felt myself go scarlet. “Why, yes,” I said, “I shall be pleased to look at them.”

We rose from dinner and went into the library. Seecombe followed us, and in a moment or two he and John brought down the coverings and spread them out.

Seecombe was right. There could be no other furnishings like these in Cornwall. I had seen none like them anywhere, either in Oxford or in London. There were many of them. Rich brocades, and heavy silken hangings. They were the kind of stuffs you might see in a museum.

“There is quality for you, sir,” said Seecombe. His voice was hushed. He might have been in church.

“I thought this blue for the bed-hangings,” said my cousin Rachel, “and the deeper blue and gold for the curtains, and the quilting for the coverlet. What do you say, Philip?”

She looked up at me, anxiously. I did not know how to answer her.

“Do you not like them?” she said to me.

“I like them very much,” I said, “but”—I felt myself go red again—“are they not very dear?”

“Oh, yes, they are dear,” she answered, “any stuff like this is dear, but it will last for years, Philip. Why, your grandson, and great grandson, will be able to sleep in the blue bedroom, with these coverings upon the bed and these hangings for the curtains. Isn’t that so, Seecombe?”

“Yes, madam,” said Seecombe.

“The only thing that matters is whether you like them, Philip,” she asked again.

“Why yes,” I said, “who could help but like them?”

“Then they are yours,” she told me, “they are a present to you, from me. Take them away, Seecombe. I will write to the place in London in the morning and say we will keep them.”

Seecombe and John folded the coverings and took them from the room. I had the feeling that her eyes were upon me, and rather than meet them I took out my pipe and lit it, taking longer over the job than usual.

“Something’s the matter,” she said. “What is it?”

I was not sure how to answer her. I did not want to hurt her.

“You should not give me a present like that,” I said awkwardly, “it will cost you far too much.”

“But I want to give them to you,” she said, “you have done so much for me. It’s such a little gift to give, in return.”

Her voice was soft and pleading, and when I glanced up at her there was quite a wounded look about her eyes.

“It’s very sweet of you,” I said, “but I don’t think you should do it, all the same.”

“Let me be the judge of that,” she answered, “and I know, when you see the room finished, you will be pleased.”

I felt wretched, and uncomfortable; not that she should wish to give me a present, which was generous of her and impulsive, and which I would have accepted without thought had it been yesterday. But this evening, since I had read that infernal scrap of letter, I was haunted by the doubt that what she wanted to do for me might turn in some way to her disadvantage; and that in giving way to her I was giving way to something that I did not fully understand.

Presently she said to me, “That book of gardens is going to be very helpful for our planning here. I had forgotten I had given it to Ambrose. You must look at the engravings. Of course they are not right for this place, but certain features would work in well. A terraced walk, for instance, looking down to the sea across the fields, and on the other side of it a sunken water garden—as they have in one of the villas in Rome where I used to stay. There’s an engraving of it in the book. I know just the spot for it, where that old wall used to stand.”

I hardly know how I did it, but I found myself asking her, in a voice at once casual and offhand, “Have you always lived in Italy, since you were born?”

“Yes,” she answered, “did Ambrose never tell you? My mother’s people came from Rome, and my father Alexander Coryn was one of those men who find it difficult to settle anywhere. He never could bear England, I think he did not get on very well with his family here, in Cornwall. He liked the life in Rome, and he and my mother suited each other well. But they led a precarious sort of existence, never any money, you know. I was used to it as a child, but as I grew up it was most unsettling.”

“Are they both dead?” I asked.

“Oh, yes, my father died when I was sixteen. Mother and I were alone for five years. Until I married Cosimo Sangalletti. Five fearful years they were too, moving from city to city, not always certain where our next meal would come from. Mine was not a sheltered girlhood, Philip. I was thinking only last Sunday how different from Louise.”

So she had been twenty-one when she married first. The same age as Louise. I wondered how they had lived, she and her mother, until she met Sangalletti. Perhaps they had given lessons in Italian, as she had suggested doing here. Perhaps that was what had made her think of it.

“My mother was very beautiful,” she said, “quite different from me, except for coloring. Tall, almost massive. And like many women of her type she went suddenly to pieces, lost her looks, grew fat and careless; I was glad my father did not live to see it. I was glad he did not live to see many things she did, or myself either, for that matter.”

Her voice was matter-of-fact and simple, she spoke without bitterness; yet I thought, looking at her there as she sat by my library fire, how little of her I really knew, and how little of that past life of hers I would ever know. She had called Louise sheltered, which was true. And I thought suddenly that the same held good for me. Here I was, twenty-four, and apart from the conventional years at Harrow and Oxford I knew nothing of the world but my own five hundred acres. When a person like my cousin Rachel moved from one place to another, left one home for a second, and then a third; married once, then twice; how did it feel? Did she shut the past behind her like a door and never think of it again, or was she beset with memories from day to day?

“Was he much older than you?” I said to her.

“Cosimo?” she said. “Why no, only a year or so. My mother was introduced to him in Florence, she had always wanted to know the Sangallettis. He took nearly a year before he made up his mind between my mother and myself. Then she lost her looks, poor dear, and lost him too. The bargain I picked up proved a liability. But of course Ambrose must have written you the whole story. It is not a happy one.”

I was about to say, “No, Ambrose was more reserved than you ever knew. If there was something that hurt him, that shocked him, he would pretend it was not there, that it had not happened. He never told me anything about your life before you married him, except that Sangalletti was killed fighting, in a duel.” Instead, I said none of this. I knew suddenly that I did not want to know either. Not about Sangalletti, nor about her mother and her life in Florence. I wanted to shut the door on it. And lock it too.

“Yes,” I said, “yes, Ambrose wrote and told me.”

She sighed, and patted the cushion behind her head.

“Ah, well,” she said, “it all seems very long ago now. The girl who endured those years was another person. I had nearly ten years of it, you know, married to Cosimo Sangalletti. I would not be young again, if you offered me the world. But then I’m prejudiced.”

“You talk,” I said, “as if you were ninety-nine.”

“For a women I very nearly am,” she said. “I’m thirty-five.”

She looked at me and smiled.

“Oh?” I said. “I thought you more.”

“Which most women would take as an insult, but I as a compliment,” she said. “Thank you, Philip.” And then, before I had time to frame an answer, she went on, “What was really on that piece of paper you threw on the fire this morning?”

The suddenness of the attack caught me unprepared. I stared at her and swallowed hard.

“The paper?” I hedged. “What paper?”

“You know perfectly well,” she said; “the piece of paper with Ambrose’s handwriting upon it, which you burned so that I should not see.”

I made up my mind then that a half-truth was better than a lie. Although I felt the color flame into my face, I met her eyes.

“It was a piece torn from a letter,” I said, “a letter, I think, that he must have been writing to me. He simply expressed himself as worried about expenditure. There was only a line or two, I don’t even remember how it went. I threw it in the fire because coming upon it, just at that moment, might have saddened you.”

Rather to my surprise, but to my relief also, the eyes, watching me so intently, relaxed. The hands, holding the rings, fell on her lap.

“Was that all?” she said. “I wondered so much… I could not understand.”

Thank heaven, though, she accepted my explanation.

“Poor Ambrose,” she said, “it was a constant source of worry to him, what he considered my extravagance; I wonder that you did not hear of it more often. The life out there was so entirely different from the one he knew at home. He never could bring himself to accept it. And then—good heaven, I cannot blame him—I know at the bottom of his heart he bore resentment against the life I had been obliged to lead before I met him. Those frightful debts, he paid them all.”

I was silent, but as I sat watching her, and smoking, I felt easier in my mind, no longer anxious. The half-truth had been successful, and she was speaking to me now without strain.

“He was so generous,” she said, “those first months. You cannot imagine, Philip, what it meant to me; at last someone I could trust, and, what was more wonderful still, someone I could love as well. I think if I had asked him for anything on earth he would have given it to me. That was why, when he became ill…” She broke off, and her eyes were troubled. “That was why it was so hard to understand, the way he changed.”

“You mean,” I said, “that he wasn’t generous anymore?”

“He was generous, yes,” she said, “but not in the same way. He would buy me things, presents, pieces of jewelry, almost as though he tried to test me in some way; I can’t explain it. And if I asked him for any money, some little necessity for the house, something we had to have—he would not give me the money. He used to look at me, with a strange brooding sort of suspicion; he would ask me why I wanted the money, how I intended to use it, was I going to give it to anyone… Eventually I had to go to Rainaldi, I had to ask Rainaldi, Philip, for money to pay the servants’ wages.”

She broke off again, and looked at me.

“Did Ambrose find out that you did that?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said. “He had never cared for Rainaldi, I believe I told you so before. But when he knew I went to him for money… that was the finish, he could not bear him to come to the villa anymore. You would hardly credit it, Philip, but I had to go out furtively, when Ambrose was resting, and meet Rainaldi in order to get money for the house.” Suddenly she gestured with her hands, and got up from her chair.

“Oh, God,” she said, “I did not mean to tell you all this.”

She went over to the window, and pulled aside the curtain, and looked out at the driving rain.

“Why not?” I asked.

“Because I want you to remember him as you knew him here,” she said. “You have your picture of him, in this house. He was your Ambrose then. Let it stay like that. The last months were mine, and I want no one to share them with me. You, least of all.”

I did not want to share them with her. I wanted her to close all those doors belonging to the past, one by one.

“You know what has happened?” she said, turning round from the window and looking at me. “We did wrong when we opened those boxes in the room upstairs. We should have let them stay there. We were wrong to touch his things. I felt it from the first moment, when I opened the trunk and saw his dressing gown and the slippers. We have let something loose that was not with us before. Some sort of bitter feeling.” She had become very white. Her hands were clasped in front of her. “I have not forgotten,” she said, “those letters that you threw into the fire, and burned. I pushed the thought of them away, but today, since we opened up the trunks, it is just as though I had read them once again.”

I got up from my chair and stood with my back to the fire. I did not know what to say to her as she paced up and down the room.

“He said, in his letter, that I watched him,” she went on. “Of course I watched him, lest he should do himself some damage. Rainaldi wanted me to have the nuns in from the convent to help me, but I would not; had I done that, Ambrose would have said they were keepers, brought in by me to spy upon him. He trusted no one. The doctors were good and patient men, but more often than not he refused to see them. One by one, he asked me to dismiss the servants. In the end, only Giuseppe remained. He trusted him. He said he had dog’s eyes…”

She broke off, and turned away. I thought of the servant from the lodge by the villa gate, and his desire to spare me pain. It was strange that Ambrose too had believed in those honest, faithful eyes. And I had only looked upon the servant once.

“There is no need to talk of all that now,” I said to her: “it does no good to Ambrose, and it only tortures you. As to myself, what happened between you and him is no concern of mine. That is all over and done with and forgotten. The villa was not his home. Nor, when you married Ambrose, was it yours either. This is your home.”

She turned and looked at me. “Sometimes,” she said slowly, “you are so like him that I become afraid. I see your eyes, with that same expression, turned upon me; and it is as though, after all, he had not died, and everything that was endured must be endured once more. I could not bear it again, not that suspicion, not that bitterness, going on and on, day after day, night after night.”

As she spoke, I had a clear picture of the villa Sangalletti. I saw the little court, and the laburnum tree as it would be in spring, with yellow blossom. I saw the chair there, with Ambrose sitting in it and his stick beside him. I felt the whole dark silence of the place. I smelled the musty air, I watched the dripping fountain. And for the first time the woman who looked down from the balcony above was not a figment of my imagination, but was Rachel. She looked at Ambrose with the same pleading look, that look of suffering, of supplication. Suddenly I felt very old, and very wise, and full of a new strength I did not understand. I held out my hands to her.

“Rachel. Come here,” I said.

She came across the room to me, and she put her hands in mine.

“There is no bitter feeling in this house,” I said to her. “The house is mine. Bitterness goes with people when they die. Those clothes are all packed up and put away. They have nothing anymore to do with either of us. From now on you are going to remember Ambrose as I remember him. We’ll keep his old hat there, on the settle in the hall. And the stick, with the others, in the stand. You belong here now, just as he did, just as I do. We are all three of us part of the place together. Do you understand?”

She looked up at me. She did not take away her hands.

“Yes,” she said.

I felt strangely moved, as if all that I did and said was laid down for me and planned, while at the same time a small still voice whispered to me in some dark cell of matter, “You can never go back upon this moment. Never… never…” We stood, holding each other’s hands, and she said to me, “Why are you so good to me, Philip?”

I remembered that in the morning, when she cried, she had rested her head against my heart. I had put my arms about her, for a moment, and laid my face against her hair. I wanted it to happen again. More than anything I had ever known. But tonight she did not cry. Tonight she did not come and rest her head against my heart. She just stood there, holding my hands.

“I’m not good to you,” I said; “I only want you to be happy.”

She moved away and picked up her candlestick to take to bed, and as she went from the room she said to me, “Good night, Philip, and God bless you. One day you may come to know some of the happiness that I knew once.”

I heard her go upstairs, and I sat down and stared into the library fire. It seemed to me that if there was any bitterness left in the house it did not come from her, nor from Ambrose, but was a seed deep in my own heart, which I should never tell her of and she need never know. The old sin of jealousy I thought buried and forgotten was with me once again. But this time I was jealous, not of Rachel, but of Ambrose, whom hitherto I had known and loved best in the whole world.