My Cousin Rachel Chapter 16

November and December passed very swiftly, or so it seemed to me. Usually, as the days shortened and the weather worsened, when there would be little to do outside and it grew dark by half-past four, I had found the long evenings in the house monotonous. Never a great reader, and unsociable, so that I did not care to shoot with my neighbors or go out and dine with them, I used to be champing for the turn of the year, when with Christmas behind me and the shortest day gone I could look forward to the spring. And spring comes early, in the west. Even before New Year’s Day the first shrubs are in bloom. Yet this autumn passed without monotony. The leaves fell, and the trees were bare, and all the Barton acres lay brown and soggy with the rain, while a chill wind nipped the sea and turned it gray. But I did not look upon it with despondency.

We settled down to a routine, my cousin Rachel and myself, which seldom varied, and it seemed to suit us well. When the weather permitted it, she would spend the morning in the grounds directing Tamlyn and the gardeners about the planting, or watching the progress of the terraced walk we had decided upon, which had necessitated the employment of extra men, besides those who worked in the woods; while I did my usual business about the estate, riding to and fro among the farms, or visiting others in the outlying districts, where I held land also. We met at half-past twelve for a brief meal, cold usually, a ham, or pie, with cake. It was the servants’ dinner hour, and we waited on ourselves. It would be my first sight of her for the day, for she always took breakfast in her room.

When I was out and about on the estate, or in my office, and heard the clock on the belfry strike noon, followed almost at once by the great clanging bell that summoned the men to their dinner, I would be aware of a rising excitement within me, a quick lifting of the heart.

What I was employed upon would seem, all of a sudden, to lack interest. If I was riding out of doors, in the park, say, or in the woods or the nearby acres, and the sound of the clock and the bell echoed through the air—for it traveled far, and I have heard it three miles distant when the wind was with it—I would turn Gypsy’s head for home with impatience, almost as if I feared, by delaying any longer without doors, I might miss one moment of the luncheon hour. And in my office it would be the same. I would stare at the papers on the desk before me, bite on my pen, tilt backwards on my chair; and what I had been writing would become, of a sudden, of no importance whatsoever. That letter could wait, those figures need not be reckoned, that piece of business over in Bodmin could be decided upon another time; and pushing everything aside I would leave the office, and pass through the courtyard to the house and so the dining room.

She was usually there before me, to give me welcome and wish me a good morning. Often she laid a sprig beside my plate, as a sort of offering, which I would put into my buttonhole; or there would be some new cordial for me to taste, one of those herb brews of which she seemed to have a hundred recipes and was forever giving to the cook to try. She had been several weeks with me in the house before Seecombe told me, in deadly secret, behind his hand, that the cook had been going to her every day to ask for orders, and that was the reason why we now fed so well.

“The mistress,” Seecombe said, “had not wished Mr. Ashley to know, lest it should be thought presumptuous of her.”

I laughed, and did not tell her that I knew; but sometimes, for the fun of it, I would remark upon some dish that we were having, and exclaim, “I cannot think what has come over them in the kitchen. The boys are turning into chefs from France,” and she would answer me in innocence, “Do you like it? Is it something better than you had before?”

One and all called her “the mistress” now, and I did not mind it. I think it pleased me and gave me, too, a sort of pride.

When we had eaten luncheon she would go upstairs to rest, or if it was a Tuesday or a Thursday I might order the carriage for her, and Wellington would drive her about the neighborhood to return the calls that had been made upon her. Sometimes, if I had business on the way, I would ride with her for a mile or so, and then get out of the carriage and let her go her way. She would take great care about her person, when she went calling. Her best mantle, and her new veil and bonnet. I would sit with my back to the horses, in the carriage, so that I could look at her; and, I think to tease me, she would not lift her veil.

“Now to your gossip,” I would say, “now to your little shocks and scandals. I would give much to become a fly upon the wall.”

“Come with me,” she would answer; “it would be very good for you.”

“Not on your life. You can tell me all, at dinner.”

And I would stand in the road and watch the carriage bowl away, while from the window blew the wisp of a handkerchief to taunt me. I would not see her again until we dined at five, and the intervening hours become something to be gone through for the evening’s sake. Whether I was on business, or about the estate, or talking with people, all the time I had a sense of urgency, an impatience to be done. How was the time? I looked at Ambrose’s watch. Still only half-past four? How the hours dragged. And coming back to the house, by way of the stables, I would know at once if she had returned, for I would see the carriage in the coach-house and the horses being fed and watered. Going into the house, passing into the library and the drawing room, I would see both rooms were empty, and this would mean she had gone up to her rooms to rest. She always rested before dinner. Then I would take a bath, or wash, and change, and go down into the library below to wait for her. My impatience mounted as the hands of the clock drew nearer to five. I would leave the door of the library open, so that I could hear her step.

First would come the patter of the dogs—I counted for nothing with them now, they followed her like shadows—and then the rustle of her gown as it swept the stairs. It was, I think, the moment I loved best in the whole day. There was something in the sound that gave me such a shock of anticipation, such a feeling of expectancy, that I hardly knew what to do or what to say when she came into the room. I don’t know what stuff her gowns were made of, whether of stiff silk, or satin, or brocade, but they seemed to sweep the floor, and lift, and sweep again; and whether it was the gown itself that floated, or she wearing it and moving forward with such grace, but the library, that had seemed dark and austere before she entered, would be suddenly alive.

A new softness came to her by candlelight that was not with her in the day. It was as if the brightness of morning and the duller shades of afternoon were given up to purposes of work, of practicality, making a briskness of movement that was definite and cool; and now with evening closed in, the shutters fastened, the weather banished, and the house withdrawn into itself, she shone with a radiance that had lain concealed about her person until now. There was more color to her cheeks and to her hair, great depth to her eyes, and whether she turned her head to speak, or moved to the bookcase to pick up a volume, or bent to pat Don as he lay stretched out before the fire, there was an easy grace in all she did which gave to every movement fascination. I wondered, in these moments, how I could ever have thought her unremarkable.

Seecombe would announce dinner, and we would pass into the dining room and take our places, I at the head of the table, she at my right hand, and it seemed to me this had always happened, there was nothing new in it, and nothing strange, and I had never sat there alone, in my old jacket, unchanged, with a book propped up in front of me so that I did not have to talk to Seecombe. Yet, if it had always happened, it would not have seemed stimulating to me, as it did now, with the mere process of eating and drinking becoming, in a sense, a new adventure.

The excitement did not lessen with the passing weeks, rather it increased, so that I would find myself making excuses to be about the house, for the sake of five minutes or so, when I might catch a glimpse of her, thus making an addition to the regular time of midday and evening when we would be together.

She might be in the library, or passing through the hall upon some business, or waiting in the drawing room for her callers, and she would smile at me and say, in some surprise, “Philip, what brings you home at such an hour?” causing me to think up some invention. As to the gardens, I who had yawned and kicked my heels in the old days when Ambrose had tried to interest me, I now made a point of being present whenever there should be a consultation in the plantation or upon the terrace walk, and again after dinner, in the evenings, we would look through her Italian books together, compare the engravings and debate, with much argument, what could best be copied. I think if she had suggested we should build a replica of the Roman Forum itself, above the Barton acres, I would have agreed with her. I said yes, and no, and very fine indeed, and shook my head, but I never really listened. It was watching her interest in the business that gave me pleasure, watching her consider thoughtfully between one picture and another, her brows knit, a pen in her hand to mark the page, and then to watch the hands themselves that turned from one volume to another.

We did not always sit below in the library. Sometimes she would ask me to go with her upstairs, to aunt Phoebe’s boudoir, and we would spread out the books and plans of gardens upon the floor. I was host in the library down below, but here, in her boudoir, she was hostess. I am not sure I did not like it better. We lost formality. Seecombe did not bother us—by some great measure of tact she had got him to dispense with the solemnity of the silver tea tray—and she would brew tisana for us both instead, which she said was a continental custom and much better for the eyes and skin.

These after-dinner hours passed all too swiftly, and I would hope that she would forget to ask the time, but the wretched clock in the belfry, far too close to our heads to strike ten o’clock and not be noticed, always shattered the peace.

“I had no idea it was so late,” she used to say, rising to her feet and closing the books. I knew this was the signal for dismissal. Even the trick of lingering by the door in conversation did not pass with her. Ten o’clock had struck, and I must go. Sometimes she gave me her hand to kiss. Sometimes she offered me a cheek. Sometimes she patted me upon the shoulder, as she might have done a puppy. Never again did she come close to me, or take my face between her hands as she had done that evening when she lay in bed. I did not look for it, I did not hope for it; but when I had said good night and gone back along the corridor to my own room, opened up my shutters and stared out at the silent garden, and heard the distant murmur of the sea breaking in the little bay beneath the woods, I would feel oddly lonely, as a child does when holiday is done.

The evening, which had built itself up, hour by hour throughout the day in fevered fancy, was over now. It would seem long before it came again. And neither my mind nor my body was ready for repose. In the old days, before she had come to the house, I used to doze before the fire in winter after dining, and then, stretching and yawning, clump my way upstairs, happy to roll into my bed and sleep till seven. Now, it was otherwise. I could have walked all night. I could have talked till dawn. To do the first was foolish. To do the second, an impossibility. Therefore I flung myself down in a chair before the open window, and smoked, and stared out across the lawn; and sometimes it was one or two in the morning before I undressed and went to bed, and all I had done was to sit there brooding in my chair, thinking of nothing, wasting the silent hours.

In December the first frosts came with the full moon, and then my nights of vigil held a quality harder to bear. There was a sort of beauty to them, cold and clear, that caught at the heart and made me stare in wonder. From my windows the long lawns dipped to the meadows, and the meadows to the sea, and all of them were white with frost, and white too under the moon. The trees that fringed the lawns were black and still. Rabbits came out and pricked about the grass, then scattered to their burrows; and suddenly, from the hush and stillness, I heard that high sharp bark of a vixen, with the little sob that follows it, eerie, unmistakable, unlike any other call that comes by night, and out of the woods I saw the lean low body creep and run out upon the lawn, and hide again where the trees would cover it. Later I heard the call again, away in the distance, in the open park, and now the full moon topped the trees and held the sky, and nothing stirred on the lawns beneath my window. I wondered if Rachel slept, in the blue bedroom; or if, like me, she left her curtains wide. The clock that had driven me to bed at ten struck one, struck two, and I thought that here about me was a wealth of beauty that we might have shared.

People who mattered not could take the humdrum world. But this was not the world, it was enchantment; and all of it was mine. I did not want it for myself alone.

So like a weather-glass I swung, from moods of exultation and excitement to a low level sometimes of dullness and depression, when, remembering her promise to remain with me for a brief time only, I wondered how much longer she would stay. If, after Christmas, she would turn to me and say, “Well, Philip, next week I go to London.” The spell of hard weather put a stop to all the planting, and little more could be done now till the spring. The terrace might be completed, for this was better done when dry, but with the plan to follow the men could work without her very well. Any day she might decide to go, and I would not be able to think of an excuse to hold her back.

In old days, at Christmas, when Ambrose had been home, he had given dinner to the tenants on Christmas Eve. I had let it lapse, the last winters of his absence, because when he had returned from traveling he held the dinner on midsummer day. Now I decided to give the dinner once again, as of long custom, if only for the reason that Rachel would be there.

When I was a child it had been the highlight of my Christmas. The men used to bring in a tall fir tree about a week before Christmas Eve, and put it in the long room over the coach houses, where we held the dinner. I was not supposed to know that it was there. But when no one was about, generally at midday, when the servants would be eating, I used to go round by the back and climb up the steps to the side door leading into the long room, and there I would see the great tree, standing in its tub at the far end, and stacked against the wall, ready to place in rows, were the long trestle tables for the dinner. I never helped to decorate until my first holiday from Harrow. The promotion was tremendous. I had never felt so proud. As a little lad I had sat beside Ambrose at the top table, but on my promotion I headed a table of my own.

Now, once again, I gave my orders to the woodmen, in fact I went out myself into the woods to choose the tree. Rachel was all delight. No celebration could have pleased her better. She held earnest consultation with Seecombe and the cook, she visited the larders, and the storage chambers, and the gamehouse; she even prevailed upon my male household to allow two girls from the Barton to come up and make French pastry under her supervision. All was excitement, and mystery too; because I would have it that she should not see the tree, and she insisted that I must not know what would be put before us for the dinner.

Packages arrived for her, and were whisked away upstairs. When I knocked upon her boudoir door I would hear crackling of paper, and then, an age afterwards it seemed, her voice would answer me, “Come in.” And she would be kneeling on the floor, her eyes bright, her cheeks flushed, with a covering flung over several objects strewn about the carpet, and she would tell me not to look.

I was back to childhood once again, back to the old fever of standing in my nightshirt tiptoe on the stairs, hearing the murmur of voices from below, and Ambrose coming suddenly from the library and laughing at me, “Go up to bed, you rascal, I’ll flay the hide off you.”

One thing gave me anxiety. What could I give Rachel for a present? I took a day in Truro, browsing in the bookshops for a book on gardens, but could find nothing. And what was more, the books from Italy she had brought with her were finer than any I could give her. I had no idea what present pleased a woman. My godfather used to buy stuff to make a gown, when he gave anything to Louise, but Rachel wore mourning only. I could not give her that. Once, I remember, Louise had been much delighted with a locket that he had brought from London. She used to wear it of an evening, when she ate Sunday dinner with us. And then the solution came to me.

There must be something, among the jewels belonging to my family, that I could give to Rachel. They were not kept at home in the safe, with the Ashley documents and papers, but at the bank. Ambrose had thought it best, in case of fire. I had no knowledge what was there. I had a hazy recollection of going to the bank one day with Ambrose, when I was very young, and of his picking up some necklace and telling me, smiling, that it had belonged to our grandmother, and that my mother had worn it on her wedding day, but for the day only, as a loan, my father not being in the direct line of succession, and that one day, if I behaved myself well, Ambrose would permit me to give it to my wife. I realized, now, that whatever there was in the bank belonged to me. Or would do, in three months’ time; but that was quibbling.

My godfather would know, of course, what jewels there were, but he had gone up to Exeter on business and would not be home until Christmas Eve, when he and Louise were invited to the dinner. I determined to go to the bank myself and demand to see the jewels.

Mr. Couch received me with his usual courtesy, and taking me into his private room, facing the harbor, he listened to my request.

“I take it Mr. Kendall would have no objection?” he asked.

“Of course not,” I said impatiently, “the matter is quite understood.” Which was untruthful, but at twenty-four, within a few months of my birthday, to have to ask my godfather for permission to do every little thing was quite ridiculous. And it riled me.

Mr. Couch sent to the vaults for the jewels. They came up, in sealed boxes. He broke the seal, and, placing a cloth on the desk in front of him, laid the jewels out upon it, one by one.

I had no idea the collection was so fine. There were rings, bracelets, earrings, brooches; and many of the pieces went together, such as a ruby headpiece for the hair and ruby earrings to go with it, likewise a sapphire bracelet and pendant and ring. Yet as I looked at them, not liking to touch them even with my finger, I remembered, with disappointment, that Rachel was in mourning, and wore no colored stones. If I presented her with these, it would be pointless; she would have no use for them.

Then Mr. Couch opened the last box, and drew from it a collar of pearls. There were four strands. They fastened round the neck like a band, with a single diamond clasp. I recognized it instantly. It was the necklace that Ambrose had shown me as a child.

“I like this,” I said, “this is the finest thing in the whole collection. I remember my cousin Ambrose showing it to me.”

“Why, there might be a difference of opinion,” said Mr. Couch; “for my part, I would price the rubies highest. But there is family feeling about the pearl collar. Your grandmother, Mrs. Ambrose Ashley, wore it first as a bride, at the Court of St. James. Then your aunt, Mrs. Philip, had it given to her, as a matter of course, when the estate passed down to your uncle. Various members of the family have worn it on their wedding day. Your own mother was among them; in point of fact, I think she was the last to do so. Your cousin, Mr. Ambrose Ashley, would never permit it to go out of the country, when there were weddings elsewhere.” He held the collar in his hand, and the light from the window fell upon the smooth round pearls.

“Yes,” he said, “it is a beautiful thing. And no woman has put it on for five-and-twenty years. I attended your mother’s wedding. She was a pretty creature. It became her well.”

I put out my hand and took the collar from him.

“Well, I want to keep it now,” I said, and I placed the collar with its wrappings in the box. He looked a little taken aback.

“I do not know if that is wise, Mr. Ashley,” he said. “If this should be lost or mislaid it would be a terrible thing.”

“It won’t be lost,” I answered briefly.

He did not seem happy, and I made haste to go, lest he should produce some argument more forceful.

“If you are worried what my guardian will say,” I told him, “please rest assured. I will make it right with him when he returns from Exeter.”

“I hope so,” said Mr. Couch, “but I had preferred it had he been present. Of course in April, when you come into the property legally, it would not matter if you took the whole collection, and did as you wished with them. I should not advise such a step, but it would be strictly legal.”

I held out my hand to him and wished him a pleasant Christmas and rode home, much elated. If I had searched the whole country I could not have found a better present for her. Thank heaven pearls were white. And it made a bond to think that the last woman to wear them had been my mother. I would tell her that. Now I could face the prospect of Christmas Eve with a lighter heart.

Two days to wait… The weather was fine, the frost was light, and there was all the promise of a clear dry evening for the dinner. The servants were much excited, and on the morning of Christmas Eve, when the trestle tables and the benches had been set down the room, and the knives and forks and platters all laid ready, with evergreen hanging from the beams, I asked Seecombe and the lads to come with me and decorate the tree. Seecombe made himself master of the ceremony. He stood a little apart from the rest of us, to give himself a longer view, and as we turned the tree this way and that, and lifted one branch and then another, to balance the frosty fir cones on it and the holly berries, he waved his hands at us, looking for all the world like the conductor of a string sextet.

“The angle does not please me, Mr. Philip,” he said, “the tree would appear to better advantage if moved a trifle to the left. Ah! too far… Yes, that is better. John, the fourth branch on the right is bent. Raise it somewhat. Tch, tch… your touch is heavy. Spread out the branches, Arthur, spread them. The tree must seem to be standing as nature placed it. Don’t stamp upon the berries, Jim. Mr. Philip, let it stay now as it is. One further movement, and the whole is wrecked.”

I had never thought him to possess such a sense of artistry.

He stood back, his hands under his coattails, his eyes near closed. “Mr. Philip,” he said to me, “we have attained perfection.” I saw young John nudge Arthur in the ribs and turn away.

Dinner was set to start at five. The Kendalls and the Pascoes would be the only “carriage folk,” as the expression had it. The rest would come by wagonette or trap, or even on their own feet, those who lived nearby. I had written out all the names on pieces of paper, and placed them on the appropriate platters. Those who had difficulty in reading, or who could not read at all, had neighbors who could do so. There were three tables. I was to head one, with Rachel at the further end. The second was headed by Billy Rowe from the Barton, and the third by Peter Johns, from Coombe.

The custom was for all the company to be assembled in the long room, ready seated, soon after five; and when everyone was in place we would walk into the room. When dinner was over, Ambrose and I used to give the people their presents from the tree, always money for the men, and new shawls for the women, and hampers of food for all of them. The presents never varied. Any change of routine would have shocked them, every one. This Christmas, though, I had asked Rachel to give out the presents with me.

Before dressing for dinner, I had sent along to Rachel’s room the collar of pearls. I had left it in its wrappings, but had placed a note inside. On the note I had written these words, “My mother wore this last. Now it belongs to you. I want you to wear it tonight, and always. Philip.”

I had my bath, and dressed, and was ready before a quarter to five.

The Kendalls and the Pascoes would not call for us at the house; the custom was for them to go straight to the long room, where they chatted with the tenants and helped to break the ice. Ambrose had always considered this a sound idea. The servants would be in the long room also, and Ambrose and I used to walk through the stone passages at the back of the house, and across the court, and out and up the flight of steps to the long room above the coach-houses. Tonight, Rachel and I would walk the passages alone.

I came downstairs and waited in the drawing room. I felt some trepidation, as I stood there, for never in my life had I given a present to a woman. It might be that it was a breach of etiquette, that flowers only were acceptable, or books, or pictures. What if she should be angry, as she had been over that business of the quarterly allowance, and should imagine, in some queer fashion, that I did this to insult her? It was a desperate thought. The passing minutes were slow torture. At last I heard her footstep on the stairs. No dogs preceded her tonight. They had all been locked early in their kennels.

She came slowly; the familiar rustle of her gown drew near. The door was open, and she came into the room and stood before me. She wore deep black, as I had expected, but I had not seen the gown before. It stood out, away from her, clinging only about the bodice and the waist, and the stuff had a sheen to it as though the light was upon it. Her shoulders were bare. She had dressed her hair higher than usual, the roll of it was looped up and drawn back, showing her ears. Around her neck was the collar of pearls. It was the only piece of jewelry upon her person. It glowed soft and white against her skin. I had never seen her look so radiant, or so happy. Louise and the Pascoes had been right after all. Rachel was beautiful.

She stood there a moment watching me, and then she put out her hands to me and said, “Philip.” I walked towards her. I stood in front of her. She put her arms about me and held me to her. There were tears in her eyes, but tonight I did not mind. She took her arms from my shoulders, and raised them to the back of my head, and touched my hair.

Then she kissed me. Not as she had done before. And as I stood there, holding her, I thought to myself, “It was not yearning for home, nor sickness of the blood, nor fever of the brain—but for this, that Ambrose died.”

I kissed her in return. In the belfry the clock struck five. She said nothing to me, nor I to her. She gave me her hand. We went down the dark kitchen passages together, across the court, and so to the long room above the coach-house, where the windows were brightly lit. To the laughing surge of voices and the bright expectant faces.