My Cousin Rachel Chapter 21

The remaining weeks of March passed very swiftly. Each day that came I felt a greater confidence in the future, and grew more light of heart. Rachel seemed to sense my mood, and shared it with me.

“I have never,” she said, “seen anyone so absurd about a birthday. You are like a child, who finds the world magic when he wakes. Does it mean so much to you to be free of poor Mr. Kendall and his care? I am sure you could not have a guardian more kind. What plan, anyway, do you intend to make for the day itself?”

“No plan at all,” I answered, “except that you have to remember what you said to me the other day. The celebrator of a birthday must be granted every wish.”

“Only up to the age of ten years old,” she said, “never afterwards.”

“That is not fair,” I said; “you made no stipulation about age.”

“If we are to picnic by the sea, or sail a boat,” she told me, “I will not come with you. It is too early in the year to sit upon a beach, and as for climbing in a boat, I know even less about that than I do about a horse. You must take Louise instead.”

“I will not take Louise,” I said, “and we will go nowhere not fitting to your dignity.” In point of fact, I had not thought about the events of the day itself, I only planned that she should have the document upon her breakfast tray, and the rest I would leave to chance. When the day of the thirty-first of March came, however, I knew that there was something else I wished to do. I remembered the jewels in the bank, and thought what a fool I was not to have recollected them before. So I had two encounters before me, on that day. One with Mr. Couch, and the other with my godfather.

I made certain first of Mr. Couch. I thought the packages might be too bulky to carry upon Gypsy, and I did not wish to order the carriage for fear Rachel might hear of it and express a desire to come into town upon some errand. Besides, it was an unusual thing for me to do, to go anywhere by carriage. So on some unnecessary pretext I walked into town, and had the groom fetch me in the dogcart. As ill-luck had it, the whole neighborhood appeared to be on shopping bent upon that morning, and as a person must either dodge into a doorway or fall into the harbor if he wishes to avoid his neighbor in our port, I was forever skulking behind corners so that I might not come face to face with Mrs. Pascoe and her brood of daughters. My very furtiveness must have drawn all eyes upon me, and word gone about the place that Mr. Ashley was behaving in singular fashion, running in one door of the fishmarket and out the other, and bobbing into the Rose and Crown before eleven in the morning, just as the vicar’s lady from the neighboring parish came walking down the street. No doubt it would be spread abroad that Mr. Ashley drank.

I got myself inside sanctuary at last, within the safe walls of the bank. Mr. Couch received me as pleasantly as he had done before.

“This time,” I told him, “I have come to take all away.” He looked at me in pained surprise.

“You are not, Mr. Ashley,” he said, “intending to remove your banking account to another establishment?”

“No,” I said, “I was speaking about the family jewels. Tomorrow I shall be twenty-five, and they become my legal property. I wish to have them in my custody when I awake upon my birthday.”

He must have thought me an eccentric, or at best a little odd.

“You mean,” he answered, “you wish to indulge yourself in a whim for the day only? You did something of the sort, did you not, on Christmas Eve. Mr. Kendall, your guardian, brought the collar back immediately.”

“Not a whim, Mr. Couch,” I said. “I want the jewels at home, in my possession. I do not know how I can make it still more clear.”

“I understand,” he said. “Well, I trust that you have a safe in the house, or at least some place of security where you can keep them.”

“That, Mr. Couch,” I said, “is really my affair. I would be much obliged if you would fetch the jewels right away. Not only the collar this time. The whole collection.”

I might have been robbing him of his own possessions.

“Very good,” he said reluctantly, “it will take a little time to fetch them from the vaults, and wrap them with even greater care. If you have any other business in the town…”

“I have none,” I interrupted. “I will wait here, and take them with me.” He saw there was no use in delay and, sending word to his clerk, instructed the packages to be brought. I had a carrier for the purpose, which was luckily just large enough to take the whole—as a matter of fact it was a wicker basket that we used at home for carting cabbages, and Mr. Couch winced as he put the precious boxes into it, one by one.

“It would have been far better, Mr. Ashley,” he said, “had I sent the packages to the house, in proper fashion. We have a brougham, you know, belonging to the bank, more suitable for the purpose.”

Yes, I thought, and what a clatter of tongues there would have been then. The bank brougham, driving to Mr. Ashley’s residence, with a top-hatted manager within. Far better the vegetable basket in a dogcart.

“That is all right, Mr. Couch,” I said, “I can manage very well.”

I staggered from the bank in triumph, bearing the basket upon my shoulder, and ran full tilt into Mrs. Pascoe, a daughter on either side.

“Good gracious, Mr. Ashley,” she remarked, “you appear well loaded.”

Holding the basket with one hand, I swept off my hat with a flourish.

“You observe me fallen on evil days,” I said to her. “I am sunk so low that I needs must sell cabbages to Mr. Couch and his clerks. Repairing the roof at home has well nigh ruined me, and I am obliged to hawk my produce about the town.”

She stared at me, her mouth agape, and the two daughters opened their eyes wide. “Unfortunately,” I said, “this basketful that I have here is due to another customer. Otherwise I would have pleasure in selling you some carrots. But in future, when you lack vegetables at the rectory, remember me.”

I went off to find the waiting dogcart, and as I heaved the carrier into it, and climbed up and took the reins, while the groom jumped up beside me, I saw her still staring at me, at the street corner, her face dumbfounded. Now the story would go round that Philip Ashley was not only eccentric, drunk, and mad, but a pauper in the bargain.

We drove home by the long avenue from Four Turnings, and while the boy put away the dogcart I went into the house the back way—the servants were at dinner—and, going upstairs by their staircase, I tiptoed through to the front and to my room. I looked the vegetable basket in my wardrobe, and went downstairs to eat some lunch.

Rainaldi would have closed his eyes and shuddered. I wrought havoc upon a pigeon pie, and washed it down with a great tankard of ale.

Rachel had been in and waited—she left a note to say so—and, thinking I would not return, had gone up to her room. For this once I did not mind her absence. I think my guilty delight would have shown too plainly on my face.

No sooner had I swallowed my meal than I was off again, this time on horseback, to Pelyn. Safe in my pocket I had the document, which the attorney, Mr. Trewin, had sent to me, as he had promised, by special messenger. I also had the will. The prospect of this interview was not as pleasing as that of the morning had been; nevertheless, I was undaunted.

My godfather was at home, and in his study.

“Well, Philip,” he said, “if I am a few hours premature, no matter. Let me wish you a happy birthday.”

“Thank you,” I said, “and I would also thank you, in return, for your affection for me and for Ambrose, and for your guardianship over these past years.”

“Which,” he said smiling, “ends tomorrow.”

“Yes,” I said, “or rather, tonight, at midnight. And as I do not want to rouse you from your sleep at such an hour, I would like you to witness my signature to a document I wish to sign, which will come into effect at that precise moment.”

“H’m,” he said, reaching for his spectacles, “a, document, what document?”

I brought the will from my breast pocket.

“First,” I said, “I would like you to read this. It was not given to me willingly, but only after much argument and discussion. I had long felt such a paper must be in existence, and here it is.”

I passed it to him. He placed his spectacles on his nose and read it through. “It is dated, Philip,” he said, “but it is not signed.”

“Quite so,” I answered, “but it is in Ambrose’s hand, is it not?”

“Why, yes,” he replied, “undoubtedly. What I do not understand is why he never had it witnessed and sent to me. I had expected such a will as this from the first days he was married, and told you so.”

“It would have been signed,” I said, “but for his illness, and for the fact that he expected, any month, to be home here and give it to you in person. That I know.”

He laid it down on his desk.

“Well, there it is,” he said. “These things have happened in other families. Unfortunate for his widow, but we can do no more for her than we have done. A will without a signature is invalid.”

“I know,” I said, “and she did not expect otherwise. As I told you just now, it was only by dint of much persuasion that I retrieved this paper from her. I must return it, but here is a copy.”

I pocketed the will, and gave him the copy I had made.

“What now?” he said. “Has anything else come to light as well?”

“No,” I answered, “only that my conscience tells me I have been enjoying something that is not mine by right. Ambrose intended to sign that will, and death, or rather illness in the first place, prevented him. I want you to read this document that I have had prepared.”

And I handed him the scroll that had been drawn up by Trewin at Bodmin.

He read it slowly, carefully, his face becoming grave as he did so, and it was only after a long while that he removed his spectacles and looked at me.

“Your cousin Rachel,” he said, “has no knowledge of this document?”

“No knowledge whatsoever,” I answered, “never by word or intimation has she expressed any thought of what I have had put there, and what I intend to do. She is utterly and entirely innocent of my purpose. She does not even know that I am here, or that I have shown you the will. As you heard her say a few weeks ago, she intends to leave for London shortly.”

He sat at his desk, his eyes upon my face.

“You are quite determined upon this course?” he said to me.

“Quite,” I answered him.

“You realize that it may lead to abuse, that there are few safeguards, and that the whole of the fortune due to you eventually, and to your heirs, may be dispersed?”

“Yes,” I said, “and I am willing to take the risk.”

He shook his head, and sighed. He rose from his chair, looked out of the window, and returned to it again.

“Does her adviser, Signor Rainaldi, know of this document?” he asked.

“Most certainly not,” I said.

“I wish you had told me of it, Philip,” he said. “I could have discussed it with him. He seemed to me a man of sense. I had a word with him that evening. I went so far as to tell him about my uneasiness as to that overdraft. He admitted that extravagance was a fault, and always had been. That it had led to trouble, not only with Ambrose, but also with her first husband, Sangalletti. He gave me to understand that he, Signor Rainaldi, is the only person who knows how to deal with her.”

“I don’t care a jot what he told you,” I said. “I dislike the man, and believe he uses this argument for his own purpose. He hopes to entice her back to Florence.”

My godfather regarded me once more.

“Philip,” he said, “forgive me asking you this question, personal I know, but I have known you since birth. You are completely infatuated with your cousin, are you not?”

I felt my cheeks burn, but I went on looking at him.

“I don’t know what you mean,” I said. “Infatuation is a futile and most ugly word. I respect and honor my cousin Rachel more than anyone I know.”

“I have meant to say this to you before,” he said. “There is much talk, you know, about her being so long a visitor to your house. I go further and say the whole of the county whispers of little else.”

“Let them continue,” I said. “After tomorrow they will have something else to discuss. The transfer of property and fortune can hardly be kept secret.”

“If your cousin Rachel has any wisdom, and wishes to keep her self-respect,” he said, “she will either go to London, or ask you to live elsewhere. The present situation is very wrong for you both.”

I was silent. Only one thing mattered, that he should sign the paper.

“Of course,” he said, “there is, in the long run, only one way out of gossip. And, according to this document, only one way out of the transfer of this property. And that is, that she should marry again.”

“I believe it most unlikely,” I said.

“I suppose,” he said, “you have not thought of asking her yourself?”

Once again the color flamed in my face.

“I would not dare to do so,” I said; “she would not have me.”

“I am not happy about any of this, Philip,” he said. “I wish now that she had never come to England. However, it is too late to regret that. Very well then, sign. And take the consequences of your action.”

I seized a pen, and put my name to the deed. He watched me with his still, grave face.

“There are some women, Philip,” he observed, “good women very possibly, who through no fault of their own impel disaster. Whatever they touch, somehow turns to tragedy. I don’t know why I say this to you, but I feel I must.” And then he witnessed my signature on the long scroll of paper.

“I suppose,” he said, “you will not wait to see Louise?”

“I think not,” I replied, and then relenting, “If you are both at liberty tomorrow evening, why not come and dine, and drink my health upon my birthday?”

He paused. “I am not certain if we are free,” he said. “I will at any rate send word to you by noon.” I could see plainly he had little wish to come and see us, and had some embarrassment in refusing my invitation. He had taken the whole matter of the transfer better than I had expected, there had been no violent expostulation, no interminable lecture, but possibly he knew me too well by now to imagine anything of the sort would have had effect. That he was greatly shaken and distressed I knew by his grave manner. I was glad that no mention had been made of the family jewels. The knowledge that they were concealed in the cabbage basket in my wardrobe might have proved the final straw.

I rode home, remembering my mood of high elation the last time I had done so, after visiting the attorney Trewin in Bodmin, only to find Rainaldi on arriving home. There would be no such visitor today. In three weeks full spring had come about the countryside and it was warm like May. Like all weather prophets, my farmers shook their heads and prophesied calamity. Late frost would come, and nip the buds in bloom and wither the growing corn beneath the surface of the drying soil. I think, on that last day of March, I would not have greatly cared if famine came, or flood, or earthquake.

The sun was sinking beyond the westward bay, flaming the quiet sky, darkening the water, and the rounded face of the near full moon showed plain over the eastern hills. This, I thought to myself, is how a man must feel when in a state of high intoxication, this complete abandon to the passing hour. I saw things, not in hazy fashion, but with the clarity of the very drunk. The park, as I entered it, had all the grace of fairy tale; even the cattle, plodding down to drink at their trough beside the pool, were beasts of enchantment, lending themselves to beauty. The jackdaws were building high, they flapped and straddled their untidy nests in the tall trees near to the avenue, and from the house and the stables I could see the blue smoke curling from the chimneys, and I could sense the clatter of pails about the yard, the whistling of the men, the barking of the puppies from their kennels. All this was old to me, long-known and loved, possessed from babyhood; yet now it held new magic.

I had eaten too fully at midday to be hungry, but I was thirsty, and drank deep of the cool clear water from the well in the courtyard.

I joked with the boys as they bolted the back doors and closed the shutters. They knew tomorrow was my birthday. They whispered to me how Seecombe had had his likeness painted for me, as a deadly secret, and that he had told them I was bound to hang it upon a panel in the hall with the ancestral portraits. I gave them a solemn promise that it was exactly what I would do. And then the three of them, with much head-nodding among themselves and muttering in corners, disappeared into the servants’ hall and then returned again, bearing a package. John, as spokesman, gave it me and said, “ ’Tis from us all, Mr. Philip, sir, we none of us can bear wait to give it you.”

It was a case of pipes. It must have cost them all of a month’s wages. I shook hands with them, and clapped them on the back, and vowed to each that I had been planning to get the very same myself next time I went to Bodmin or to Truro, and they gazed back at me in great delight, so that like an idiot I could have wept to see their pleasure. In truth, I never smoked any pipe but the one Ambrose had given me when I was seventeen, but in the future I must make a point of smoking all of theirs, for fear of disappointing them.

I bathed and changed, and Rachel was waiting for me in the dining room.

“I smell mischief,” she said at once. “You have not been home for the day. What have you been at?”

“That, Mrs. Ashley,” I said to her, “is no concern of yours.”

“No one has set eyes upon you since early morning,” she said. “I came home to luncheon, and had no companion.”

“You should have lunched with Tamlyn,” I told her. “His wife is a most excellent cook, and would have done you well.”

“Did you go to town?” she asked.

“Why, yes, I went to town.”

“And did you see anyone of our acquaintance?”

“Why, yes,” I answered, nearly bursting into laughter. “I saw Mrs. Pascoe and the girls, and they were greatly shocked at my appearance.”

“Why so?”

“Because I was carrying a basket on my shoulder, and told them I had been selling cabbages.”

“Were you telling them the truth, or had you been to the Rose and Crown and drunk too much cider?”

“I was not telling them the truth, nor had I been to the Rose and Crown for cider.”

“Then what was it all about?”

I would not answer her. I sat in my chair and smiled.

“I think,” I said, “that when the moon is fully risen I shall go swimming after dinner. I feel all the energy of the world in myself tonight, and all the folly.”

She looked at me over her glass of wine with solemn eyes.

“If,” she said, “you desire to spend your birthday in your bed with a poultice on your chest, drinking black currant every hour, nursed—not by me, I warn you, but by Seecombe—go swimming, if you please. I shall not stop you.”

I stretched my arms above my head, and sighed for pure enjoyment. I asked permission to smoke, which she granted.

I produced my case of pipes. “Look,” I said, “what the boys have given me. They could not wait till morning.”

“You are as great a baby as they,” she said, and then, in a half-whisper, “You do not know what Seecombe has in store for you.”

“But I do,” I whispered back, “the boys have told me. I am flattered beyond measure. Have you seen it?”

She nodded. “It is perfect,” she said; “his best coat, the green one, his underlip, and all. It was painted by his son-in-law, from Bath.”

When we had dined we went into the library, but I had not been telling her an untruth when I said I had all the energy of the world. I was in such a state of exultation that I could not rest in my chair, with longing for the night to pass and for the day to come.

“Philip,” she said at last, “for the sake of pity, go and take your walk. Run to the beacon and back again, if that will cure you. I think you have gone mad, in any case.”

“If this is madness,” I said, “then I would want to stay that way for always. I did not know lunacy could give such delight.”

I kissed her hand and went out into the grounds. It was a night for walking, still and clear. I did not run, as she had bidden me, but for all that I achieved the beacon hill. The moon, so nearly full, hovered, with swollen cheek, above the bay, and wore about his face the look of a wizard man who shared my secret. The bullocks, sheltering for the night in the lea of the stone wall in the valley’s dip, stumbled to their feet at my approach, and scattered.

I could see a light from the Barton, above the meadow, and when I reached the beacon head, and the bays stretched out on either side of me, there were the flickering lights of the little towns along the western coast, and our own harbor lights to the east as well. Yet presently they dimmed, as the candlelight did within the Barton, and there was nothing about me but that light from the pale moon, making a silver track across the sea. If it was a night for walking it was a night for swimming too. No threat of poultices or cordials would keep me from it. I climbed down, to my favorite point where the rocks jutted, and, laughing to myself at this folly most sublime, plunged into the water. God! It was icy cold. I shook myself like a dog, with chattering teeth, and struck out across the bay, returning, after a bare four minutes, back to the rocks to dress.

Madness. Worse than madness. But still I did not care, and still my mood of exultation held me in thrall.

I dried myself, as best I could, upon my shirt, and walked up through the woods, back to the house. The moonlight made a ghostly path for me, and shadows, eerie and fantastic, lurked behind the trees. Where my path divided into two, one taking me to the cedar walk and the other to the new terrace above, I heard a rustle where the trees grew thickest, and suddenly to my nostrils came that rank vixen smell about me in the air, tainting the very leaves under my feet; yet I saw nothing, and all the daffodils, leaning from the banks on either side of me, stayed poised and still, without a breath to stir them.

I came to the house at last, and looked up at her window. It was open wide, and I could not tell if her candle burned still or if she had blown it out. I looked at my watch. It wanted five minutes to midnight. I knew suddenly that if the boys had not been able to wait to give me my present, neither could I wait to give Rachel hers. I thought of Mrs. Pascoe, and the cabbages, and my mood of folly swept me in full force. I went and stood under the window of the blue bedroom, and called up to her. I called her name three times before I had an answer. She came to the open window, dressed in that white nun’s robe, with the full sleeves and the lace collar.

“What do you want?” she said. “I was three parts asleep, and you have woken me.”

“Will you wait there,” I said, “just a few moments? I want to give you something. The package that Mrs. Pascoe saw me carry.”

“I have not Mrs. Pascoe’s curiosity,” she said. “Let it wait until the morning.”

“It cannot wait until the morning,” I said, “it has to happen now.”

I let myself in by the side door, and went upstairs to my room and came down again, carrying the cabbage basket. Round the handles I knotted a great piece of string. I had with me, also, the document, which I placed in my jacket pocket. She was still waiting there, beside the window.

“What in the world,” she called softly, “have you got carried in that basket? Now, Philip, if this is one of your practical jokes, I will not share it. Have you got crabs hidden there, or lobsters?”

“Mrs. Pascoe believes they are cabbages,” I said. “At any rate, I give you my promise they won’t bite. Now, catch the string.”

I threw up the end of the long string to the window.

“Haul away,” I told her, “with both hands, mind. The basket is some weight.” She pulled, as she was bidden, and the basket bumped and crashed against the wall, and against the wire that was there to hold the creeper, and I stood below, watching her, shaking with silent laughter.

She pulled the basket onto her windowsill, and there was silence.

After a moment she looked out again. “I don’t trust you, Philip,” she said. “These packages have odd shapes. I know they are going to bite.”

For answer I began to climb up the creeper wire, hand over hand, until I reached her window.

“Be careful,” she called, “you will fall and break your neck.”

In a moment I was inside the room, one leg upon the floor, the other on the sill.

“Why is your head so wet?” she said. “It is not raining.”

“I’ve been swimming,” I answered. “I told you I would do so. Now, open up the packages, or shall I do it for you?”

One candle was burning in the room. She stood with bare feet upon the floor and shivered.

“For heaven’s sake,” I said, “put something round you.”

I seized the coverlet from the bed and threw it about her, then lifted her and put her among her blankets.

“I think,” she said, “that you have gone raving mad.”

“Not mad,” I said, “it’s only that I have become, at this minute, twenty-five. Listen.” I held up my hand. The clock struck midnight. I put my hand into my pocket. “This,” I said, laying the document upon the table, by the candlestick, “you can read at your leisure. But the rest I want to give you now.”

I emptied the packages upon the bed and cast the wicker basket on the floor. I tore away the paper, scattering the boxes, flinging the soft wrappings anywhere. Out fell the ruby headpiece and the ring. Out came the sapphires and the emeralds. Here were the pearl collar and the bracelets, all tumbling in mad confusion on the sheets. “This,” I said, “is yours. And this, and this…” And in an ecstasy of folly I heaped them all upon her, pressing them on her hands, her arms, her person.

“Philip,” she cried, “you are out of your mind, what have you done?”

I did not answer. I took the collar, and put it about her neck. “I’m twenty-five,” I said; “you heard the clock strike twelve. Nothing matters anymore. All this for you. If I possessed the world, you should have it also.”

I have never seen eyes more bewildered or amazed. She looked up at me, and down to the scattered necklaces and bracelets and back to me again, and then, I think because I was laughing, she put her arms suddenly about me and was laughing too. We held one another, and it was as though she caught my madness, shared my folly, and all the wild delight of lunacy belonged to both of us.

“Is this,” she said, “what you have been planning all these weeks?”

“Yes,” I said, “they should have come with your breakfast. But like the boys and the case of pipes, I could not wait.”

“And I have nothing for you,” she said, “but a gold pin for your cravat. Your birthday, and you shame me. Is there nothing else you want? Tell me, and you shall have it. Anything you ask.”

I looked down at her, with all the rubies and the emeralds spread about her, and the pearl collar around her neck, and all of a sudden I was serious and remembered what the collar meant.

“One thing, yes,” I said, “but it isn’t any use my asking it.”

“Why not?” she said.

“Because,” I answered, “you would box my ears, and send me straight to bed.”

She stared up at me, touching my cheek with her hand.

“Tell me,” she said. And her voice was gentle.

I did not know how a man asks a woman to become his wife. There is generally a parent, whose consent must first be given. Or if no parent, then there is courtship, there is all the give and take of some preceding conversation. None of this applied to her and me. And it was midnight, and talk of love and marriage had never passed between us. I could say to her, bluntly, plainly, “Rachel, I love you, will you be my wife?” I remembered that morning in the garden, when we had jested about my dislike of the whole business, and I had told her that I asked for nothing better than my own house to comfort me. I wondered if she could understand, and remember too.

“I told you once,” I said, “that I had all the warmth and the comfort that I needed within four walls. Have you forgotten?”

“No,” she said, “I have not forgotten.”

“I spoke in error,” I said, “I know now what I lack.”

She touched my head, and the tip of my ear, and the end of my chin.

“Do you?” she said. “Are you so very sure?”

“More sure,” I answered, “than of anything on earth.”

She looked at me. Her eyes seemed darker in the candlelight.

“You were very certain of yourself upon that morning,” she said, “and stubborn too. The warmth of houses…”

She put out her hand to snuff the candle, and she was laughing still.

When I stood upon the grass at sunrise, before the servants had wakened and come down to open the shutters and let in the day, I wondered if any man before me had been accepted in marriage in quite so straight a fashion. It would save many a weary courtship if it was always so. Love, and all its trappings, had not concerned me hitherto; men and women must do as best they pleased, I had not cared. I had been blind, and deaf, and sleeping; now, no longer.

What happened on those first hours of my birthday will remain. If there was passion, I have forgotten it. If there was tenderness, it is with me still. Wonder is mine forever, that a woman, accepting love, has no defense. Perhaps this is the secret that they hold to bind us to them. Making reserve of it, until the last.

I would not know, having no other for comparison. She was my first, and last.