My Cousin Rachel Chapter 18

Our Christmas was a happy one. She saw to that. We rode to the farms on the estate, and to the cottages and lodges, and distributed the clothes that had belonged to Ambrose. And under each roof we were obliged to eat a pie, or taste a pudding, so that when evening came again we were too full to sit ourselves to dinner, but, surfeited, left the servants to finish all the remaining geese and turkey of the night before, while she and I roasted chestnuts before the drawing room fire.

Then, as though I had gone back in time some twenty years, she bade me shut my eyes, and, laughing, went up to her boudoir and came down again and put into my hands a little tree. This she had dressed in gay fantastic fashion, with presents wrapped in brightly colored paper, each present an absurdity; and I knew she did this for me because she wanted me to forget the drama of Christmas Eve and the fiasco of the pearls. I could not forget. Nor could I forgive. And from Christmas onwards a coolness came between my godfather and myself. That he should have listened to petty lying gossip was bad enough, but even more I resented his sticking to the quibble in the will which left me under his jurisdiction for three more months. What if Rachel had spent more than we had foreseen? We had not known her needs. Neither Ambrose nor my godfather had understood the way of life in Florence. Extravagant she well might be, but was it so great a crime? As to society there, we could not judge it. My godfather had lived all his life in careful niggardly fashion, and, because Ambrose had never bothered to spend much upon himself, my godfather had taken it for granted that this state of things would continue once the property was mine. My wants were few, and I had no more desire for personal spending than had Ambrose, in his time, but this cheeseparing on the part of my godfather induced in me a sort of fury that made me determined to have my way and use the money that was mine.

He had accused Rachel of frittering away her allowance. Well, he could accuse me of wanton waste about my house. I decided, after the New Year, that I wished to make improvements to the property that would be mine. But not only to the gardens. The terracing of the walk above the Barton fields proceeded, also the hollowing away and preparation of the ground beside it that was to become the sunken water-garden, copied from the engraving in Rachel’s book.

I was determined to repair the house as well. Too long, I considered, we had made do with the monthly visitations of Nat Dunn, the estate mason, who crept from ladder to ladder upon the roof and replaced slates, swept off by a gale of wind, smoking his pipe up there the while, his back against a chimney. Now was the time to set the whole roof in order, have new tiles, new slates, new guttering, strengthening also those walls damaged by long years of wind and rain. Too little had been done about the place since the old days, two hundred years ago, when the men of Parliament had wrought such havoc, and my ancestors had been hard put to it to keep the house from falling into ruin. I would make amends for past neglect, and if my godfather pulled a face and drew sums upon his blotter he could go hang himself.

So I went my own way about the business, and before January was out some fifteen to twenty men were working on my roof, or about the building, and inside the house as well, decorating ceilings and walls to my orders. It gave me the greatest satisfaction to picture my godfather’s expression when the bills for the work should be submitted to him.

I made the repairs about the house serve as an excuse for not entertaining visitors, thereby putting an end, for the time being, to Sunday dinner. Therefore I was spared the regular visit of the Pascoes and the Kendalls, and saw nothing of my godfather, which was part of my intention. I also had Seecombe spread it, in his jungle fashion, below stairs, that Mrs. Ashley found it difficult to receive callers at the moment, owing to there being workmen in the drawing room. We lived therefore, during those days of winter and early spring, in hermit fashion, greatly to my liking. Aunt Phoebe’s boudoir, as Rachel would still insist in naming it, became our place of habitation. There, at the close of day, Rachel would sit, and sew or read, and I would watch her. A new gentleness had come to her manner, since the incident of the pearls on Christmas Eve, which, though warming beyond belief, was sometimes hard to bear.

I think she had no knowledge what it did to me. Those hands, resting for a moment on my shoulder, or touching my head in a caress, as she passed by the chair where I was sitting, talking all the while about the garden or some practical matter, would set my heart beating so that it would not be stilled. To watch her move was a delight, and sometimes I even wondered if she rose from her chair on purpose, to go to the window, to reach upwards to the curtain, to stand there with her hand upon it looking outwards onto the lawn, because she knew my eyes were watching her. She said my name Philip in a manner quite her own. To others, it had always been a short, clipped word, with some emphasis on the final letter, but she lingered on the “l” slowly, deliberately, in a way that somehow, to my ear, gave it a new sound I liked well. As a lad I had always wished to be called Ambrose, and the wish had remained with me, I think, until the present. Now I was glad that my name went back even farther into the past than his had done. When the men brought the new lead piping to be placed against the walls, to serve as guttering from the roof to the ground, and the bucket heads were in position, I had a strange feeling of pride as I looked up at the little plaque beneath them stamped with my initials P. A and the date beneath, and lower down the lion that was my mother’s crest. It was as though I gave something of myself into the future. And Rachel, standing beside me, took my arm and said, “I never thought you proud, Philip, until now. I love you the better for it.”

Yes, I was proud… but emptiness went with it all the same.

So the work proceeded, in the house and in the grounds; and the first days of spring came, being in themselves a blend of torment and delight. Blackbird and chaffinch sang beneath our windows on first waking, rousing both Rachel and myself from sleep. We talked of it at midday when we met. The sun came to her first, on the eastern side of the house, and with her windows wide drove a slant of light onto her pillow. I had it later, as I dressed. Leaning out, looking over the meadows to the sea, I would see the horses and the plow climb the further hill, with the gulls wheeling about them, and in the pasture lands closer to the house were the ewes and the young lambs, back to back for comfort. Lapwings, on passage bent, came in a little cloud, with fluttering wings. Soon they would pair, and the male soar and tumble in his flight of rapture. Down on the shore the curlews whistled, and the oyster-catchers, black and white like parsons, poked in the seaweed solemnly, for breakfast. The air had a zest to it, salt-tasting, under the sun.

It was on a morning such as this that Seecombe came to me and told me that Sam Bate, up at the East Lodge, who was in bed, poorly, wished very much that I would go and see him, as he had something of importance to give me. He inferred that whatever it was he had was too precious to deliver to his son or to his daughter. I thought little of it. It is always a pleasure among country folk to make much mystery over small matters. Nevertheless, in the afternoon, I walked up the avenue to the gates there where the four roads meet, and turned in at the lodge to have a word with him. Sam was sitting up in bed, and lying on the blanket before him was one of the coats that had belonged to Ambrose, which had been given to him on Christmas Day. I recognized it as the light-colored one I had not known, which Ambrose must have bought for the hot weather on the continent.

“Well, Sam,” I said, “I am sorry to find you in bed. What is the matter?”

“The same old cough, Mr. Philip, sir, that catches me aback every spring,” replied the man. “My father had it before me, and one spring t’will carry me to the grave, the same as it did him.”

“Nonsense, Sam,” I told him, “those are old tales they spread, that what a man’s father had will kill the son.”

Sam Bate shook his head. “There’s truth in it, sir,” he said, “and you know it, too. How about Mr. Ambrose and his father, the old gentleman your uncle? Brain sickness did for the pair of them. There’s no going agin the ways of nature. I’ve seen the same in cattle.”

I said nothing, wondering, at the same time, how Sam should know what illness it was of which Ambrose had died. I had told no one. It was incredible how rumor spread about our countryside.

“You must send your daughter to ask Mrs. Ashley for some cordial to cure your cough,” I said to him. “She has great knowledge of such things. Oil of eucalyptus is one of her remedies.”

“I will, Mr. Philip, I will,” he answered me, “but first I felt it right to ask you to come yourself, concerning the matter of the letter.”

He lowered his voice, and looked suitably concerned and solemn.

“What letter, Sam?” I asked.

“Mr. Philip,” he replied, “on Christmas Day, you and Mrs. Ambrose kindly gave some of us clothes and the like belonging to the late master. And very proud we are, all of us, to have the same. Now this coat that you see here, on the bed, was given to me.” He paused, and touched the coat, with some of the same awe about him still with which he had received it on Christmas Day. “Now I brought the coat up here, sir, that same night,” Sam continued, “and I said to my daughter if we had a glass case to put it in we’d do so, but she told me to get along with such nonsense, the coat was meant to wear, but wear it I would not, Mr. Philip. T’would have seemed presuming on my part, if you follow me, sir. So I put the coat away in the press, yonder, and took him out now and agin and had a look at it. Then, when this cough seized me, and I lay up here abed, I don’t know how it was, but the fancy came upon me to wear the coat. Just sitting up in bed, like, as you see me now. The coat being lightish weight, and easy on my back. Which I did, Mr. Philip, for the first time yesterday. It was then I found the letter.”

He paused, and, fumbling under his pillow, drew forth a packet. “What had happened, Mr. Philip, was this,” he said. “The letter must have slipped down inside the material of the coat and the lining. T’wouldn’t have been noticed in the folding of it, or in packing. Only by someone such as me smoothing the coat with my hands for wonder at having it around me. I felt the crackling of it, and made so bold as to open up the lining with a knife. And here it is, sir. A letter, plain as day. Sealed, and addressed to you by Mr. Ambrose himself. I know his hand, of old. It shook me, sir, to come upon it. It seemed, if you understand, as though I had come upon a message from the dead.”

He gave the letter to me. Yes, he was right. It was addressed to me, and by Ambrose. I looked down at the familiar handwriting, and felt a sudden wrench at my heart.

“That was wise of you, Sam, to act as you have done,” I said, “and very proper to send for me in person. Thank you.”

“No thanks, Mr. Philip, no thanks at all,” he answered, “but I thought how maybe that letter had laid there all these months, and should have been in your hands a long time since. But the poor master being dead, made it so wisht, to come upon it. And the same to you on reading it, maybe. And so I thought it best to tell you of it myself, rather than send my daughter to the mansion.”

I thanked him again, and after putting the letter away in my breast pocket talked for a few minutes or so, before I left him. Some intuition, I don’t know what it was, made me tell him to say nothing of the business to anyone, not even to his daughter. The reason I gave him was the same that he had given me, respect for the dead. He promised, and I left the lodge.

I did not return at once to the house. I climbed up through the woods to a path that runs above that part of the estate, bordering the Trenant acres and the wooded avenue. Ambrose had been fonder of this walk than any other. It was our highest point of land, saving the beacon to the south, and had a fine view over the woods and the valley to the open sea. The trees fringing the path, planted by Ambrose and his father before him, gave shelter, although not high enough as yet to dim the view, and in May month the bluebells made a cover to the ground. At the end of the path, topping the woods, before plunging to descent and the keeper’s cottage in the gully, Ambrose had set up a piece of granite. “This,” he said to me, half joking, half in earnest, “can serve me for tombstone when I die. Think of me here, rather than in the family vault with the other Ashleys.”

He little thought, when he had it put in place, that he would not lie in the family vault ever, but in the Protestant cemetery, in Florence. Upon the slab of granite he had scrolled some mention of the lands where he had traveled, and a line of doggerel at the end to make us laugh when we looked at it together. For all the nonsense, though, I believe his heart intended it; and during that last winter, when he was from home, I had often climbed the path up through the woods to stand beside the granite stone, and look down upon the prospect that he loved so well.

When I came to it today I stood for a moment with my hands upon the slab, and I could not bring myself to a decision. Below me the smoke curled from the keeper’s cottage, and his dog, left upon a chain while he was absent, barked now and again, at nothing, or maybe because the sound of his own yelps gave him company. The glory of the day had gone, and it was colder. Clouds had come across the sky. In the distance I could see the cattle coming down from the Lankelly hills to water in the marshes under the woods, and beyond the marshes, in the bay, the sea had lost the sun and was slatey gray. A little wind blew shoreward, rustling the trees below me.

I sat down beside the slab, and taking Ambrose’s letter from my pocket placed it face downwards, on my knee. The red seal stared up at me, imprinted with his ring and the chough’s head. The packet was not thick. It contained nothing. Nothing but a letter, which I did not want to open. I cannot say what misgiving held me back, what cowardly instinct drove me to hide my head like an ostrich in the sand. Ambrose was dead, and the past went with him when he died. I had my own life to make, and my own will to follow. It might be that in this letter there would be some further mention of that other matter I had chosen to forget. If Ambrose had accused Rachel of extravagance, he could now use the same epithet, with more reason perhaps, to me. I should have dispensed more upon the house itself in a few months than he had done in years. I did not feel it was betrayal.

But not to read the letter… what would he say to that? If I tore it now to shreds, and scattered the pieces, and never learned the contents, would he condemn me? I balanced the letter in my hand, this way and that. To read, or not to read; I wished to heaven the choice was not before me. Back in the house, my loyalty was with her. In the boudoir, with my eyes upon her face, watching those hands, that smile, hearing her voice, no letter would have haunted me. Yet here, in the woods beside the slab of granite where we had so often stood together, he and I, Ambrose holding the very stick I carried now, wearing the same coat, here his power was strongest. Like a small boy who prays that the weather shall be fine upon his birthday I prayed God now that the letter should contain nothing to disturb me, and so opened it. It was dated April of the preceding year, and was therefore written three months before he died.


“If my letters have been infrequent, it is not because I have not thought of you. You have been in my mind, these past months, perhaps more than ever before. But a letter can miscarry, or be read by others, and I would not wish either of those things to happen; therefore I have not written, or when I have done so I know there has been little in anything I have said. I have been ill, with fever and bad headache. Better now. But for how long, I cannot tell. The fever may come again, and the headaches too, and when in the grip of them I am not responsible for what I say or do. This much is certain.

“But I am not yet certain of the cause. Philip, dear boy, I am much disturbed. That is lightly said. I am in agony of mind. I wrote to you, during the winter I think it was, but was ill shortly afterwards and have no recollection what happened to the letter, I may very well have destroyed it in the mood that possessed me. In it, I believe I told you of her fault that caused me so much concern. Whether hereditary or not I cannot say, but I believe so, and believe also that the loss of our child, only a few months on its way, did her irreparable harm.

“This, by the way, I had kept from you in my letters; we were both much shaken at the time. For my part, I have you, and am consoled. But with a woman it goes deeper. She had made plans and projects, as you can imagine, and when, after but four-and-a-half months, it went for nothing, and she was told by her doctor there could not be another, her distress was very great, profounder than my own. I could swear her manner altered from that time. The recklessness with money became progressive, and I perceived in her a tendency to evasion, to lies, to withdrawal from me, that was completely contrary to the warm nature that was hers when we first married. As the months passed I noticed more and more that she turned to this man I have mentioned before in my letters, signor Rainaldi, a friend and I gather a lawyer of Sangalletti’s, for advice, rather than to me. I believe this man to have a pernicious influence upon her. I suspect him of having been in love with her for years, even when Sangalletti was alive, and although I do not for an instant believe that she ever thought of him in such a connection up to a short while ago, now, since she has altered in her manner to me, I cannot be so sure. There is a shadow in her eye, a tone in her voice, when his name is said that awakens in my mind the most terrible suspicion.

“Brought up as she was by feckless parents, living a life, before and even during her first marriage, about which both of us have had reserve, I have often felt that her code of behavior is different to ours at home. The tie of marriage may not be so sacred. I suspect, in fact I have proof, that he gives her money. Money, God forgive me for saying so, is at the present time the one way to her heart. I believe, if the child had not been lost, none of this would be; and I wish with all my heart that I had not listened to the doctor at the time when he dissuaded travel, but had brought her home. We would have been with you now, and all of us content.

“At times she seems like her true self, and all is well, so well that I feel I have been through some nightmare and wake again to the happiness of the first months of our marriage. Then, with a word or an action, all is lost again. I will come down to the terrace and find Rainaldi there. At sight of me, both fall silent. I cannot but wonder what it is they have been discussing. Once, when she had gone into the villa and Rainaldi and I were left alone, he asked an abrupt question as to my will. This he had seen, incidentally, when we married. He told me that as it stood, and should I die, I would leave my wife without provision. This I knew, and had anyway drawn up a will myself that would correct the error, and would have put my signature to it, and had it witnessed, could I be certain that her fault of spending was a temporary passing thing, and not deep-rooted.

“This new will, by the way, would give her the house and the estate for her lifetime only, and so to you upon her death, with the proviso that the running of the estate be left in your hands entirely.

“It still remains unsigned, and for the reason I have told you.

“Mark you, it is Rainaldi who asked questions on the will, Rainaldi who drew my attention to the omissions of the one that stands at present. She does not speak of it, to me. But do they speak of it together? What is it that they say to one another, when I am not there?

“This matter of the will occurred in March. Admittedly, I was unwell, and nearly blinded with my head, and Rainaldi bringing up the matter may have done so in that cold calculating way of his, thinking that I might die. Possibly it is so. Possibly it is not discussed between them. I have no means of finding out. Too often now I find her eyes upon me, watchful and strange. And when I hold her, it is as though she were afraid. Afraid of what, of whom?

“Two days ago, which brings me to the reason for this letter, I had another attack of this same fever, which laid me low in March. The onset is sudden. I am seized with pains and sickness, which passes swiftly to great excitation of my brain, driving me near to violence, and I can hardly stand upon my feet for dizziness of mind and body. This, in its turn, passes, and an intolerable desire for sleep comes upon me, so that I fall upon the floor, or upon my bed, with no power over my limbs. I do not recollect my father being thus. The headaches, yes, and some difficulty of temperament, but not the other symptoms.

“Philip, my boy, the only being in the world whom I can trust, tell me what it means, and if you can, come out to me. Say nothing to Nick Kendall. Say no word to any single soul. Above all, write not a word in answer, merely come.

“One thought possesses me, leaving me no peace. Are they trying to poison me?


I folded the letter back into its creases. The dog stopped barking in the cottage garden below. I heard the keeper open his gate and the dog yelp at him in welcome. I heard voices from the cottage, the clank of a pail, the shutting of a door. From the trees on the hill opposite the jackdaws rose in flight, and circled, cawing, and moved in a black cloud to the tops of other trees, beside the marshes.

I did not tear the letter. I dug a hole for it, beneath the slab of granite. I put it inside my pocketbook, and buried the pocketbook, deep in the dark earth. Then I smoothed the place with my hands. I walked away down the hill, and through the woods to the avenue below. As I climbed again, up the back way to the house, I heard the laughter and the chatter of the men as they went home from work. I stood a moment and watched them trudge off across the park. The scaffolding placed against the walls where they had been working all the day looked bleak and bare.

I went in, through the back entrance across the court, and as my feet sounded on the flags Seecombe came out to me from the steward’s room, with consternation on his face.

“I am glad you have come, sir,” he said. “The mistress has been asking for you this long while. Poor Don has had an accident. She is much concerned.”

“An accident?” I said. “What happened?”

“A great slate from the roof fell on him, sir,” he answered. “You know how deaf he has become of late, and how loath to leave his place in the sun, outside the library window. The slate must have fallen on his back. He cannot move.”

I went to the library. Rachel was kneeling there on the floor, with Don’s head pillowed in her lap. She raised her eyes when I came into the room. “They have killed him,” she said, “he is dying. Why did you stay away so long? If you had been here, it would not have happened.”

Her words sounded like an echo to something long forgotten in my mind. But what it was I could not now remember. Seecombe went from the library, leaving us alone. The tears that filled her eyes ran down her face. “Don was your possession,” she said, “your very own. You grew up together. I can’t bear to see him die.”

I went and knelt beside her on the floor, and I realized that I was thinking, not of the letter buried deep beneath the granite slab, nor of poor Don so soon to die, stretched out there between us, his body limp and still. I was thinking of one thing only. It was the first time since she had come to my house that her sorrow was not for Ambrose, but for me.