My Cousin Rachel Chapter 19

We sat with Don, through the long evening. I had my dinner, but Rachel would eat nothing. Shortly before midnight he died. I carried him away and covered him, and tomorrow we would bury him in the plantation. When I returned the library was empty, and Rachel had gone upstairs. I walked along the corridor to the boudoir and she was sitting there, with wet eyes, staring into the fire.

I sat beside her and took her hands. “I think he did not suffer,” I said to her. “I think he had no pain.”

“Fifteen long years,” she said, “the little boy of ten, who opened his birthday pie. I kept remembering the story, as he lay there with his head in my lap.”

“In three weeks’ time,” I said, “it will be the birthday once again. I shall be twenty-five. Do you know what happens on that day?”

“All wishes should be granted,” she answered, “or so my mother used to say, when I was young. What will you wish for, Philip?”

I did not answer her at once. I stared, with her, into the fire.

“I shall not know,” I said, “until the day comes.”

Her hand, with rings upon it, lay white and still upon my own.

“When I am twenty-five,” I said, “my godfather has no further control over the property. It is mine, to do with what I will. The pearl collar, the other jewels there in the bank, I can give them all to you.”

“No,” she said, “I would not take them, Philip. They should remain in trust for your wife, when you marry. I know you have no desire to marry yet, but one day you may change your mind.”

I knew well what I longed to say to her, yet dared not. Instead, I bent down and kissed her hand, then moved away.

“It is only through error,” I said, “that those jewels are not yours today. And not only the jewels, but everything. This house, the money, the estate. You know that perfectly.”

She looked distressed. She turned from the fire, and leaned back in her chair. Her hand began playing with her rings.

“There is no need to discuss that,” she said. “If there was error, I am used to it.”

“You may be,” I said, “but I am not.”

I stood up, my back to the fire, looking down upon her. I knew now what I could do, and no one could prevent me.

“What do you mean?” she said, with that same shadow of distress still in her eyes.

“It does not matter,” I answered; “you shall know, in three weeks’ time.”

“In three weeks’ time,” she said, “after your birthday, I must leave you, Philip.”

She had said them at last, the words I had expected. But now that I had a plan formed in my mind they might not matter.

“Why?” I asked.

“I have stayed too long,” she answered.

“Tell me,” I said, “supposing that Ambrose had made a will leaving the property to you for your lifetime, with the proviso that during that lifetime I looked after the estate and ran it for you, what would you have done?”

Her eyes flickered away from me, back to the fire again.

“How do you mean,” she asked, “what would I have done?”

“Would you have lived here?” I said. “Would you have turned me out?”

“Turned you out?” she exclaimed. “From your own home? Why, Philip, how could you ask me such a thing?”

“You would have stayed then?” I replied. “You would have lived here in the house, and, in a sense, employed me in your business? We should be living here together, just as we are doing now?”

“Yes,” she said, “yes, I suppose so. I have never thought. It would be so different, though, you cannot make comparison.”

“How different?”

She gestured with her hands. “How can I explain to you?” she said. “Don’t you understand that my position, as it is, is untenable, simply because I am a woman? Your godfather would be the first to agree with me. He has said nothing, but I am sure he feels that the time has come for me to go. It would have been quite otherwise, had the house been mine and you, in the sense you put it, in my employ. I should be Mrs. Ashley, you my heir. But now, as it has turned out, you are Philip Ashley, and I, a woman relative, living on your bounty. There is a world of difference, dear, between the two.”

“Exactly,” I replied.

“Well then,” she said, “let’s talk of it no further.”

“We will talk of it further,” I said, “because the matter is of supreme importance. What happened to the will?”

“What will?”

“The will that Ambrose made, and never signed, in which he left the property to you?”

I saw the anxiety deepen in her eyes.

“How do you know of such a will? I never told you of it,” she said.

A lie would serve as an excuse, and I gave it her.

“I have always known there must be one,” I answered, “but possibly it was left unsigned, and so invalid, from a legal point of view. I go even further, and suggest you have it here among your things.”

This was a shot at venture, but it told. Her eyes flashed instinctively towards the little bureau, against the wall, then back to me.

“What are you trying to make me say?” she asked.

“Only confirm that it exists,” I said.

She hesitated, then shrugged her shoulders.

“Very well, yes,” she replied, “but it alters nothing. The will was never signed.”

“Can I see it?” I asked.

“For what purpose, Philip?”

“For a purpose of my own. I think you can trust me.”

She looked at me a long while. She was clearly bewildered, and I think anxious too. She rose from her chair and went towards the bureau, then, hesitant, glanced back at me again.

“Why suddenly all this?” she said. “Why can’t we leave the past alone? You promised we should do so, that evening in the library.”

“You promised you would stay,” I answered her.

To give it me or not, the choice was hers. I thought of the choice that I had made that afternoon beside the granite slab. I had chosen, for better or for worse, to read the letter. Now she must come to a decision too. She went to the bureau, and, taking a small key, opened up a drawer. Out of the drawer she took a piece of paper, and gave it to me.

“Read it, if you wish,” she said.

I took the paper to the candlelight. The writing was in Ambrose’s hand, clear and firm, a stronger hand than in the letter I had read that afternoon. The date was November, of a year ago, when he and Rachel had been married seven months. The paper was headed “Last Will and Testament of Ambrose Ashley.” The contents were just as he had told me. The property was left to Rachel, for her lifetime, passing at her death to the eldest of any children that might be born to both of them, and failing the birth of children, then to me, with the proviso that I should have the running of the same while she should live.

“May I make a copy of this?” I said to her.

“Do what you want,” she said. She looked pale and listless, as if she did not care. “It’s over and done with, Philip, there is no sense in talking of it now.”

“I will keep it for the moment, and make a copy of it too,” I said, and sitting at the bureau I took pen and paper and did so, while she lay in her chair, her cheek resting in her hand.

I knew that I must have confirmation of everything that Ambrose had told me in his letter, and though I hated every word I had to say I forced myself to question her. I scratched away with the pen: copying the will was more a pretext than anything else, and served its purpose so that I did not have to look at her.

“I see that Ambrose dated this November,” I said. “Have you any idea why he should choose that month to make a new will? You were married the preceding April.”

Her answer was slow in coming; and I thought suddenly how a surgeon must feel, when he probes about the scar of a wound but lately healed.

“I don’t know why he wrote it in November,” she said. “We were neither of us thinking of death at that time. Rather the reverse. It was the happiest time of all the eighteen months we were together.”

“Yes,” I said, seizing a fresh piece of paper, “he wrote and told me of it.” I heard her move in her chair, and turn to look at me. But I went on writing at the bureau.

“Ambrose told you?” she said. “But I asked him not to, I feared you might misunderstand and feel, in some way, slighted; it would be very natural if you had. He promised to keep it secret. And then, as it turned out, it made no odds.”

The voice was flat, without expression. Perhaps, after all, when a surgeon probed a scar the sufferer would say dully that he felt no pain. In the letter, buried beneath the granite, Ambrose had said, “With a woman, these things go deeper.” As I scratched upon the piece of paper I saw that I had written the words, “It made no odds… it made no odds.” I tore up the piece of paper, and began afresh.

“And finally,” I said, “in the long run, the will was never signed.”

“No,” she said, “Ambrose left it as you see it now.”

I had done with writing. I folded the will and the copy I had made, and put both of them in my breast pocket, where earlier in the afternoon I had carried his letter. Then I went and knelt beside her chair, and putting my arms about her held her fast; not as I would a woman, but as a child.

“Rachel,” I said, “why did not Ambrose sign the will?”

She lay quite still, and did not move away. Only the hand that rested on my shoulder tightened suddenly.

“Tell me,” I said, “tell me, Rachel.”

The voice that answered me was faint and far away, not more than a whisper in my ear.

“I never knew,” she said; “we did not speak of it again. But I think when he realized that I could not, after all, have children, he lost belief in me. Some sort of faith went, though he never knew it.”

As I knelt there, with my arms about her, I thought of the letter in the pocketbook beneath the granite slab, with this same accusation said in other words, and I wondered how it could be that two people who had loved could yet have such a misconception of each other and, with a common grief, grow far apart. There must be something in the nature of love between a man and a woman that drove them to torment and suspicion. “You were unhappy then?” I asked.

“Unhappy?” she said. “What do you suppose? I was almost out of my mind.”

And I could see them sitting on the terrace of the villa, with this strange shadow between them, built out of nothing but their own doubts and fears, and it seemed to me that the seeds of this same shadow went back beyond all reckoning and could never more be traced. Perhaps, unconscious of his grudge, he brooded about her past with Sangalletti and before, blaming her for the life he had not shared, and she, with resentment likewise, feared loss of love must go with loss of child-bearing. How little she had understood of Ambrose after all. And what small knowledge he had had of her. I might tell her of the contents of the letter under the slab, but it would do no good. The misunderstanding went too deep.

“So it was all through error that the will was never signed, and put aside?” I said to her.

“Call it error if you like,” she answered, “it cannot matter now. But soon afterwards, his manner altered and he himself changed. Those headaches, almost blinding him, began. They drove him near to violence, once or twice. I wondered how much could be my fault, and was afraid.”

“And you had no friend?”

“Only Rainaldi. And he never knew what I have told you tonight.”

That cold hard face, those narrow searching eyes, I did not blame Ambrose for mistrusting him. Yet how could Ambrose, who was her husband, have been so uncertain of himself? Surely a man must know when a woman loved him? Yet possibly one could not always tell.

“And when Ambrose fell ill,” I said, “you no longer asked Rainaldi to the house?”

“I dared not,” she said. “You will never understand how Ambrose became, and I don’t want to tell you. Please, Philip, you must not ask me anymore.”

“Ambrose suspected you—of what?”

“Of everything. Of infidelity, and worse than that.”

“What can be worse than infidelity?”

Suddenly she pushed me away, and rising from her chair went to the door and opened it. “Nothing,” she said, “nothing in the world. Now go away, and leave me to myself.”

I stood up slowly, and went to the door beside her.

“I am sorry,” I said, “I did not mean to make you angry.”

“I am not angry,” she answered me.

“Never again,” I said, “will I ask you questions. These were the last. I give you my solemn promise.”

“Thank you,” she said.

Her face was strained and white. Her voice was cold.

“I had a reason for asking them,” I said. “You will know it in three weeks’ time.”

“I don’t ask the reason, Philip,” she said, “all I ask of you is, go.”

She did not kiss me, or give me her hand. I bowed to her, and went. Yet a moment just before she had permitted me to kneel beside her with my arms about her. Why, in a sudden, had she changed? If Ambrose had known little about women, I knew less. That warmth so unexpected, catching a man unaware and lifting him to rapture, then swiftly, for no reason, the changing mood, casting him back where he had stood before. What trail of thought, confused and indirect, drove through those minds of theirs, to cloud their judgment? What waves of impulse swept about their being, moving them to anger and withdrawal, or else to sudden generosity? We were surely different, with our blunter comprehension, moving more slowly to the compass points, while they, erratic and unstable, were blown about their course by winds of fancy.

Next morning, when she came downstairs, her manner was as usual, kind and gentle; she made no reference to our conversation of the night before. We buried poor Don in the plantation, in a piece of ground apart, where the camellia walk began, and I made a small circle round his grave with stones. We did not talk of that tenth birthday when Ambrose gave him to me, nor yet of the twenty-fifth that was to come. But the following day I rose early, and, giving orders for Gypsy to be saddled, rode to Bodmin. I called upon an attorney there, a man named Wilfred Tewin, who did much of the business for the county but had not hitherto handled Ashley affairs, my godfather dealing with his own people in St. Austell. I explained to him that I had come upon a matter of great urgency and privacy, and that I desired him to draw up a document in legal form and language that would enable me to dispose of my entire property to my cousin, Mrs. Rachel Ashley, upon the first day of April, when it became mine by law.

I showed him the will that Ambrose had not signed, and I explained to him that it was only through sudden illness, followed by death, that Ambrose had omitted to sign it. I told him to incorporate, in the document, much of what Ambrose had written in the will, that on Rachel’s decease the property passed back again to me, and that I should have the running of it in her lifetime. Should I die first the property would go, as matter of course, to my second cousins in Kent, but only at her death, and not before. Tewin was quick to understand what it was I wanted, and I think, being no great friend to my godfather—which was partly the reason I had gone to him—he was gratified to have so important a business entrusted to his care.

“You wish,” he said, “to put in some clause safeguarding the land? As the draft stands at present, Mrs. Ashley could sell what acreage she pleased, which seems to me unwise if you desire to pass it onto your heirs in its entirety.”

“Yes,” I said slowly, “there had better be a clause forbidding sale. That goes, most naturally, for the house too.”

“There are family jewels, are there not,” he said, “and other personal possessions? What of them?”

“They,” I replied, “are hers, to do with as she pleases.”

He read the draft through to me, and I did not think it could be faulted.

“One thing,” he said. “We have no proviso should Mrs. Ashley marry again.”

“That,” I said, “is not likely to happen.”

“Possibly not,” he answered, “but the point should be covered just the same.”

He looked at me inquiringly, his pen poised in the air.

“Your cousin is still comparatively a young woman, is she not?” he said. “It should certainly be taken into account.”

I thought suddenly, most monstrously, of old St. Ives in the far end of the county, and the remarks that Rachel had made to me in jest.

“In the case of her remarriage,” I said quickly, “the property reverts again to me. That is most definite.”

He made a note upon the paper, and read the draft again.

“And you desire this ready and drawn up, in legal form, by the first of April, Mr. Ashley?” he said.

“Please. That is my birthday. On that day the property becomes mine, absolutely. No objection can be put forward from any quarter.”

He folded the paper, and smiled at me.

“You are doing a very generous thing,” he said, “giving everything away the moment it is yours.”

“It would never have been mine to begin with,” I said, “if my cousin Ambrose Ashley had put his signature to that will.”

“All the same,” he said, “I doubt if such a thing has ever been done before. Certainly not to my knowledge, or in my lifetime of experience. I gather you want nothing said of this until the day?”

“Nothing at all. The matter is most secret.”

“Very well, then, Mr. Ashley. And I thank you for entrusting me with your confidence. I am at your disposal at any time in the future should you wish to call upon me regarding any matter whatsoever.”

He bowed me from the building, promising that the full document should be delivered to me on the thirty-first day of March.

I rode home with a reckless feeling in my heart. I wondered if my godfather would have an attack of apoplexy when he heard the news. I did not care. I wished him no ill, once I was rid of his jurisdiction, but for all that I had turned the tables on him to perfection. As for Rachel, she could not go to London now and leave her property. Her argument of the preceding night would not hold good. If she objected to me in the house, very well, I would take myself to the lodge, and call upon her every day for orders. I would be with Wellington and Tamlyn and the rest, and wait upon her bidding, cap in hand. I think had I been a little lad, I would have cut a caper from sheer love of living. As it was, I set Gypsy at a bank, and nearly took a toss in doing so when I landed with a bump the other side. The March winds made a fool of me; I would have sung aloud, but I could not for the life of me keep to a single tune. The hedgerows were green, and the willows were in bud, and all the honeyed mass of golden gorse in bloom. It was a day for folly and high fever.

When I returned, mid-afternoon, and rode up the carriageway to the house, I saw a post chaise drawn up before the door. It was an unusual sight, for always, when people called upon Rachel, they came in their own carriage. The wheels and the coach were dusty, as if from a long journey on the road, and certainly neither the vehicle nor the driver was known to me. I turned back at sight of them, and rode round to the stables, but the lad who came to take Gypsy knew no more than I did of the visitors, and Wellington was absent.

I saw no one in the hall but when I advanced softly towards the drawing room I heard voices from within, behind the closed door. I decided not to mount the stairs, but to go up to my room by the servants’ stairway at the back. Just as I turned the drawing room door opened, and Rachel, laughing over her shoulder, came out into the hall. She looked well and happy, and wore that radiance about her that was so much part of her when her mood was gay.

“Philip, you are home,” she said. “Come into the drawing room—this visitor of mine you shall not escape. He has traveled very far to see us both.” Smiling, she took my arm, and drew me, most reluctantly, into the room. A man was seated there, who at sight of me rose from his chair, and came towards me with his hand outstretched.

“You did not expect me,” he said, “and I make my apology. But then neither did I expect you, when I saw you first.”

It was Rainaldi.