My Cousin Rachel Chapter 17

The whole company stood up as we came into the room. The tables were pushed back, there was shuffling of feet, the murmur of voices hushed; the heads of one and all turned round to look at us. Rachel paused a moment on the threshold; I think she had not expected such a sea of faces. Then she saw the Christmas tree at the far end, and gave a cry of pleasure. The pause was broken, and a murmur of sympathy and gladness at her surprise arose from everyone.

We took our places at our respective ends of the top table, and Rachel sat down. The rest of us did the same, and at once a clamor of chat and talk began, with clattering of knives, and moving of platters, and each man jostling his neighbor in laughter and apology. I had for partner on my right Mrs. Bill Rowe, from the Barton, sprigged out to beat all comers in her muslins, and I noticed that Mrs. Johns of Coombe, upon my left, looked at her in disfavor. I had forgotten, in my desire for protocol, that neither of them “spoke” to the other. Some rift, dating back to a misunderstanding about eggs on market day, had lasted fifteen years. No matter, I would be gallant to the pair of them and cover all distress. Flagons of cider would come to my assistance, and seizing the nearest jug I helped them, and myself, most liberally, then turned to the bill of fare. The kitchens had done us well. Never, in my long memories of Christmas dinners, had we been offered plenty such as this. Roast goose, roast turkey, sides of beef and mutton, great smoked hams decorated with a frill, pastries and pies of all shapes and sizes, puddings bulging with dried fruits; and between the heavier fare were platters of that delicate fragile pastry, airy as thistledown, that Rachel had concocted with the Barton maids.

Smiles of anticipation and of greed wreathed the faces of the hungry guests, my own among them, and already great gusts of laughter came from the other tables, where, undaunted by the immediate presence of the “master,” the broader-tongued among my tenants let themselves go with loosening of belts and collars. I heard Jack Libby, of bibulous eye, utter hoarsely to his neighbor—I think he had already had a glass or two of cider on the road—“By Gor… after this lot they could feed us to the crows and we wouldn’t feel et.” Little thin-lipped Mrs. Johns upon my left pricked at her wing of goose with a fork poised between her fingers like a quill, and the fellow whispered to her, with a wink in my direction, “Go to it m’dear, with thumb and finger. Tear ’un asunder.”

It was then I noticed that each one of us had a small package put beside his plate, the packages addressed in Rachel’s handwriting. Everybody seemed to perceive this at the same time, and for a brief moment the food was forgotten, in the excited tearing of the paper. I watched, and waited, before opening my own. I realized, with a sudden ache in my heart, what she had done. She had given every man and woman assembled there a present. She had wrapped them up herself, and enclosed with each a note. Nothing big, or fine, but a little trifle that would please them well. So that was the reason for the mysterious wrappings behind the boudoir door. I understood it all.

When each of my neighbors had fallen to their food again I opened my own. I unwrapped it on my knees, beneath the table, determined that only I myself should see what had been given me. It was a gold chain for my keys, with a disk upon it bearing our initials, P.A.R.A., and the date beneath. I held it for a moment in my hands, then put it, furtively, into my waistcoat pocket. I looked up at her and smiled. She was watching me. I raised my glass to her, she raised hers in reply. God! I was happy.

Dinner proceeded, uproarious and gay. Greasy platters, heaped with food, were emptied, I know not how. Glasses were filled, and filled again. Someone, halfway down the table, began to sing, and the song was taken up and joined by those from the other tables. Boots hummed a measure on the floor, knives and forks beat time upon the platters, bodies swayed to and fro in rollicking rhythmic fashion; and thin-lipped Mrs. Johns of Coombe told me that, for a man, my lashes were far too long. I helped her to more cider.

At last, remembering how Ambrose timed his moment to perfection, I rapped long and loud upon the table. The voices died away. “Those who desire to do so,” I said, “may go outside, and then return again. In five minutes’ time Mrs. Ashley and I will give the presents from the tree. Thank you, ladies and gentlemen.”

The pressure to the doors was precisely what I had expected. And with a smile on my lips I watched Seecombe, walking stiff and straight yet treading the ground lest it should give way beneath his feet, bring up the rear. Those who remained pushed the benches and the trestles against the wall. After the presents had been given from the tree, and we had departed, those who were able to do so would take their partners in a dance. High revelry would last until midnight. I used to listen to the stamping, as a boy, from my nursery window. Tonight I made my way over to the little group standing by the tree. The vicar was there, and Mrs. Pascoe, three daughters and a curate. Likewise my godfather and Louise. Louise looked well, but a trifle pale. I shook hands with them. Mrs. Pascoe gushed at me, all teeth, “You have surpassed yourself. Never have we enjoyed ourselves so much. The girls are quite in ecstasy.”

They looked it, with one curate between three of them.

“I’m glad you thought it went off well,” I said, and, turning to Rachel, “Have you been happy?”

Her eyes met mine and smiled. “What do you think?” she said. “So happy, I could cry.”

I saluted my godfather. “Good evening to you, sir, and happy Christmas,” I said. “How did you find Exeter?”

“Cold,” he said shortly, “cold and drear.”

His manner was abrupt. He stood with one hand behind his back, the other tugged at his white mustache. I wondered if something about the dinner had upset him. Had the cider flowed too freely for his liking? Then I saw him stare at Rachel. His eyes were fixed upon the collar of pearls around her throat. He saw me staring, and he turned away. For a moment I felt back again in the Fourth Form at Harrow, with the master discovering the crib hidden under my Latin book. Then I shrugged my shoulders. I was Philip Ashley, aged four-and-twenty years. And no one in the world, certainly not my godfather, could dictate to me to whom I should, or should not, give Christmas presents. I wondered if Mrs. Pascoe had already dropped some fell remark. Possibly good manners would prevent her. And anyway, she could not know the collar. My mother had been dead before Mr. Pascoe held the living. Louise had noticed it. That was already plain. I saw her blue eyes waver towards Rachel, and then drop again.

The people came stumping back into the room. Laughing, murmuring, pressing together, they came nearer to the tree, as Rachel and I took our stand before it. Then I bent to the presents, and, reading out the names, gave the parcels to Rachel; and one by one they came to take their gifts. She stood there, before the tree, flushed, and gay, and smiling. It was all I could do to read the names instead of looking at her. “Thank you, God bless you, sir,” they said to me; and passing onto her, “Thank you, m’am. God bless you, too.”

It took us the best part of half an hour to give the presents and to say a word to each. When it was over and done with, the last present accepted with a curtsey, a sudden silence fell. The people, standing all together in a great group against the wall, waited for me. “A happy Christmas to you, one and all,” I said. And back came the shout from the whole lot of them as one, “A happy Christmas to you, sir, and to Mrs. Ashley.”

Then Billy Rowe, his one lock plastered down upon his brow for the occasion, piped up in a high reedy voice, “Three cheers, then, for the pair of ’en.” And the cheers that echoed through the rafters of the long room nearly shook the boards and brought us all down upon the carriages below. I glanced at Rachel. There were tears now. I shook my head at her. She smiled, and blinked them back, and gave her hand to me. I saw my godfather looking at us with a stiff nipped face. I thought, most unpardonably, of that retort, passed from one schoolboy to another, to silence criticism. “If you don’t like it, you can go…” The blast would be appropriate. Instead of which I smiled, and drawing Rachel’s hand inside my arm I led her back from the long room to the house.

Someone, young John I should imagine, for Seecombe had been moving as though to a distant drum, had bolted back to the drawing room between present giving and placed cake and wine in the drawing room. We were too well-filled. Both remained untouched, though I saw the curate crumble a sugared bun. Perhaps he eats for three. Then Mrs. Pascoe, who was surely born into this world, heaven save her, to wreck all harmony with her blabbing tongue, turned to Rachel and said, “Mrs. Ashley, forgive me, I really must comment upon it. What a beautiful pearl collar you are wearing. I have had eyes for nothing else all evening.”

Rachel smiled at her, and touched the collar with her fingers. “Yes,” she said, “it is a very proud possession.”

“Proud indeed,” said my godfather drily; “it’s worth a small fortune.”

I think only Rachel and myself noticed his tone of voice. She glanced at my godfather, puzzled, and from him to me, and was about to speak when I moved forward. “I think the carriages have come,” I said.

I went and stood by the drawing room door. Even Mrs. Pascoe, usually deaf to suggestions of departure, saw by my manner that her evening had reached its climax. “Come, girls,” she said, “you must all be tired, and we have a busy day before us. No rest for a clergyman’s family, Mr. Ashley, on Christmas Day.” I escorted the Pascoe family to the door. Luckily, I had been right in my surmise. Their carriage was ready waiting. They took the curate with them. He crouched like a small bird between two daughters, fully fledged. As they drove away the Kendall carriage drew forward in its turn. I turned back to the drawing room and found it empty, save for my godfather.

“Where are the others?” I asked.

“Louise and Mrs. Ashley went upstairs,” he said; “they will be down in a moment or two. I am glad of the opportunity to have a word with you, Philip.”

I crossed over to the fireplace and stood there, with my hands behind my back.

“Yes?” I said. “What is it?”

He did not answer for a moment. He was plainly embarrassed.

“I had no chance to see you before I left for Exeter,” he said, “or I would have spoken of this before. The fact is, Philip, I have had a communication from the bank that I find decidedly disturbing.”

The collar, of course, I thought. Well, that was my affair.

“From Mr. Couch, I suppose?” I said to him.

“Yes,” he answered. “He advises me, as is very right and proper, that Mrs. Ashley is already several hundred pounds overdrawn on her account.”

I felt myself go cold. I stared back at him; then the tension snapped, and the color flamed into my face.

“Oh?” I said.

“I don’t understand it,” he continued, pacing the floor. “She can have few expenses here. She is living as your guest, and her wants must be few. The only thing that occurs to me is that she is sending the money out of the country.”

I went on standing by the fire and my heart was beating against my ribs. “She is very generous,” I said, “you must have noticed that, tonight. A present for each one of us. That cannot be done on a few shillings.”

“Several hundred pounds would pay for them a dozen times over,” he replied. “I don’t doubt her generosity, but presents alone cannot account for an overdraft.”

“She has taken it upon herself to spend money on the house,” I said. “There have been furnishings bought for the blue bedroom. You can take all that into consideration.”

“Possibly,” said my godfather, “but nevertheless the fact remains that the sum we decided to give her quarterly has already been doubled, nearly trebled, by the amount she has withdrawn. What are we to decide for the future?”

“Double, treble, the amount we give her now,” I said. “Obviously what we gave was not sufficient.”

“But that is preposterous, Philip,” he exclaimed. “No woman, living as she does here, could possibly desire to spend so much. A lady of quality in London would be hard put to it to fritter so much away.”

“There may be debts,” I said, “of which we know nothing. There may be creditors, pressing for money, back in Florence. It is not our business. I want you to increase the allowance and cover that overdraft.”

He stood before me, with pursed lips. I wanted the matter over, done with. My ears were awake for the sound of footsteps on the stairs.

“Another thing,” he said, uneasily. “You had no right, Philip, to take that collar from the bank. You realize, don’t you, that it is part of the collection, part of the estate, and you have not the right to remove it?”

“It is mine,” I said; “I can do what I like with my property.”

“The property is not yet yours,” he said, “for a further three months.”

“What of it?” I gestured. “Three months pass quickly. No harm can come to the collar in her keeping.”

He glanced up at me.

“I am not so sure,” he said.

The implication in his words drove me to fury.

“Good God!” I said. “What are you suggesting? That she might take that collar and sell it?”

For a moment he did not reply. He tugged at his mustache.

“Since going to Exeter,” he said, “I have come to learn a little more about your cousin Rachel.”

“What the devil do you mean?” I asked.

His eyes went from me to the door, then back again.

“It happened that I came across old friends,” he said, “people you would not know, who are great travelers. They have wintered in Italy and France over a period of years. It seems that they met your cousin when she was married to her first husband, Sangalletti.”


“Both were notorious. For unbridled extravagance, and, I must add, for loose living also. The duel in which Sangalletti died was fought because of another man. These people said that when they learned of Ambrose Ashley’s marriage to the countess Sangalletti they were horrified. They predicted that she would run through his entire fortune within a few months. Luckily, it was not so. Ambrose died before it was possible for her to do it. I am sorry, Philip. But this news has much disturbed me.” Once again he paced the floor.

“I did not think that you would fall so low as to listen to travelers’ tales,” I said to him. “Who are these people, anyway? How dare they have the mischief to repeat gossip of over ten years past? They would not dare to do so before my cousin Rachel.”

“Never mind that now,” he replied. “My concern now is with those pearls. I am sorry, but as your guardian for another three months I must ask you to desire her to return the collar. I will have it placed in the bank again, with the rest of the jewelry.”

Now it was my turn to pace the floor. I hardly knew what I did.

“Return the collar?” I said. “But how can I possibly ask her to do that? I gave it to her, tonight, as a Christmas present. It is the last thing in the whole world that I could do.”

“Then I must do it for you,” he answered.

I suddenly hated his stiff stubborn face, his rigid way of standing, his stolid indifference to all feeling.

“I’ll be damned if you will,” I said to him.

I wished him a thousand miles away. I wished him dead.

“Come, Philip,” he said, altering his tone, “you are very young, very impressionable, and I quite understand that you wanted to give your cousin some token of esteem. But family jewels are rather more than that.”

“She has a right to them,” I said. “God knows if anyone has a right to wear the jewels it is she.”

“Had Ambrose lived, yes,” he answered, “but not now. Those jewels remain in trust for your wife, Philip, when you marry. And that’s another thing. That collar has a significance of its own, which some of the older among the tenants at dinner tonight may remark upon. An Ashley, on his marriage, allows his bride to wear the collar on her wedding day, as sole adornment. That is the kind of family superstition which the people about here delight in, and, as I have told you, the older among them know the tale. It is unfortunate, and the sort of thing that causes gossip. I am sure that Mrs. Ashley, in her situation, is the last person to wish that.”

“The people here tonight,” I said impatiently, “will think, if they were in a state to think at all, that the collar is my cousin’s own possession. I have never heard such rubbish in my life, that her wearing of it might cause gossip.”

“That,” he said, “is not for me to say. I shall doubtless know only too soon if there is talk. One thing I must be firm upon, Philip. And that is, that the collar is returned to the safety of the bank. It is not yet yours to give, and you had no right whatsoever to go to the bank, without my permission, and bring it from safe custody. I repeat, if you will not ask Mrs. Ashley to return it, I shall.”

In the intensity of our discussion we had not heard the rustle of the gowns upon the stairs. Now it was too late. Rachel, followed by Louise, stood in the doorway.

She stood there, her head turned towards my godfather, who was planted in the center of the drawing room, confronting me.

“I am sorry,” she said, “I could not help but overhear what you have said. Please, I don’t want either of you to embarrass yourselves on my account. It was dear of Philip to let me wear the pearls tonight, and quite right, Mr. Kendall, of you to ask for their return. Here they are.” She raised her hands and unfastened them from her neck.

“No,” I said, “why the devil should you do so?”

“Please, Philip,” she said.

She took off the collar and gave it to my godfather. He had the grace to look uncomfortable, yet relieved too.

I saw Louise look at me with pity. I turned away.

“Thank you, Mrs. Ashley,” said my godfather in his gruff way. “You understand that this collar is really part of the estate trust, and Philip had no business to take it from the bank. It was a foolish, thoughtless action. But young men are headstrong.”

“I perfectly understand,” she said, “let us say no more about it. Do you need wrapping for it?”

“Thank you, no,” he answered, “my handkerchief will do.”

He took a handkerchief from his breast pocket, and placed the collar in the middle of it, with great care.

“And now,” he said, “I think that Louise and I will say good night. Thank you for a delightful and successful dinner, Philip, and I wish you both a happy Christmas.”

I did not answer. I went out into the hall, and stood by the front door, and handed Louise into the carriage without a word. She pressed my hand in sign of sympathy, but I was too much moved to answer her. My godfather climbed in beside her, and they went away.

I walked slowly back to the drawing room. Rachel was standing there, gazing down into the fire. Her neck seemed naked without the collar. I stood looking at her without speaking, angry, miserable. At sight of me she put out her arms and I went to her. My heart was too full to speak. I felt like a little lad of ten years old, and it would not have taken much to make me cry.

“No,” she said, her voice tender with the warmth that was so much part of her, “you must not mind. Please, Philip, please. I am so proud to have worn it for that once.”

“I wanted you to wear it,” I said, “I wanted you to keep it always. God damn him, and send him to hell.”

“Hush,” she said, “dear, don’t say those things.”

I was so bitter and angry I could have ridden to the bank upon the instant, and gone to the vaults, and brought back every piece of jewelry there, every stone, every gem, and given them to her, and all the gold and silver in the bank as well. I could have given her the world.

“Well, it’s spoiled now,” I said, “the whole evening, the whole of Christmas. Everything is wasted.”

She held me close, and laughed. “You are like a child,” she said, “running to me with empty hands. Poor Philip.” I stood away, and looked down upon her.

“I am no child,” I said, “I am five-and-twenty years, all but three blasted months. My mother wore those pearls on her wedding day, and before that my aunt, and before that my grandmother. Don’t you realize why I wanted you to wear them too?”

She put her hands on my shoulders, and kissed me once again.

“Why, yes,” she answered, “that was why I was so happy, and so proud. You wanted me to wear them because you knew that had I been married here, and not in Florence, Ambrose would have given them to me on our wedding day.”

I said nothing. She had told me, some weeks back, that I lacked perception. Tonight, I might have said the same of her. A few moments later, she patted me on the shoulder, and went upstairs to bed.

I felt in my pocket for the gold chain she had given me. That, if nothing else, was mine alone.