My Cousin Rachel Chapter 24

The first thing that I noticed was that the tree outside my window was in leaf. I looked at it, puzzled. When I had gone to bed the buds were barely formed. It was very strange. True, the curtains had been drawn, but I well remembered noticing how tight they were upon my birthday morning, when I leaned out of the window and looked out across the lawn. There was no pain now in my head and the stiffness had all gone. I must have slept for many hours, possibly a day or more. There was no reckoning with time, when anyone fell ill.

Surely I had seen him many times, though, old Doctor Gilbert with his beard, and another man as well, a stranger. The room in darkness always. Now it was light. My face felt scrubby—I must be in great need of a shave. I put my hand up to my chin. Now this was madness, for I too had a beard. I stared at my hand. It did not look like mine. It was white and thin, the nails grown to a fine length; too often I broke them, riding. I turned my head and saw Rachel sitting in a chair, near to my bed—her own chair, from the boudoir. She did not know I saw her. She was working upon a piece of embroidery, and wore a gown I did not recognize. It was dark, like all her gowns, but the sleeves were short, above the elbow, and the stuff was light, as though for coolness’ sake. Was the room so warm? The windows were wide open. There was no fire in the grate.

I put my hand up to my chin again and felt the beard. It had a pleasant touch to it. Suddenly I laughed, and at the sound she raised her head and looked at me.

“Philip,” she said, and smiled; and suddenly she was kneeling by my side, with her arms about me.

“I have grown a beard,” I said.

I could not stop myself from laughing, for the folly of it, and then, from laughing, turned to coughing, and at once she had a glass with some ill-tasting stuff inside it which she made me drink, holding it to my lips, then putting me back again upon the pillows.

This gesture struck a chord in memory. Surely, for a long while, there had been a hand, with a glass, making me drink, that had come into my dreams, and gone again? I had believed it to be Mary Pascoe, and kept pushing it away. I lay staring at Rachel, and put out my hand to her. She took it and held it fast. I ran my thumb along the pale blue veins that showed always on the back of hers, and turned the rings. I continued thus for quite a time, and did not talk.

Presently I said, “Did you send her away?”

“Send who?” she asked.

“Why, Mary Pascoe,” I replied.

I heard her catch her breath, and glancing up I saw that her smile had gone and a shadow had come to her eyes.

“She has been gone these five weeks,” she said. “Never mind that now. Are you thirsty? I have made you a cool drink with fresh limes, sent down from London.” I drank, and it tasted good after the bitter medicine she had given me.

“I think I must have been ill,” I said to her.

“You nearly died,” she answered.

She moved, as though to go, but I would not have it.

“Tell me about it,” I said. I had all the curiosity of someone who has been asleep for years, like Rip van Winkle, to find the world had gone along without him.

“If you want to revive in me all those weeks of anxiety I will tell you,” she answered, “not otherwise. You have been very ill. Let that be enough.”

“What was the matter with me?”

“I have small regard for your English doctors,” she replied. “On the continent we call that illness meningite, which here no one knew anything about. That you are alive today is little short of a miracle.”

“What pulled me through?”

She smiled, and held my hand the tighter. “I think your own horse strength,” she answered me, “and certain things I bade them do. Making a puncture on your spine to take the fluid was but one. Also letting into your blood stream a serum made from the juice of herbs. They called it poison. But you have survived.”

I remembered the cordials that she had made for some of the tenants who had been sick during the winter, and how I had teased her about it, calling her midwife and apothecary.

“How do you know about these things?” I said to her.

“I learned them from my mother,” she said. “We are very old, and very wise, who come from Florence.”

The words struck some chord in memory, but I could not recollect just what it was. To think was still an effort. And I was content to lie there in my bed, her hand in mine.

“Why is the tree in leaf outside my window?” I asked.

“It should be, in the second week of May,” she said.

That I had lain there knowing nothing all those weeks was hard to understand. Nor could I remember the events that had brought me to my bed. Rachel had been angry with me, for some reason that escaped me, and had invited Mary Pascoe to the house, I knew not why. That we had been married the day before my birthday was very certain, though I had no clear vision of the church, or of the ceremony; except that I believed my godfather and Louise had been the only witnesses, with little Alice Tabb, the church cleaner. I remembered being very happy. And suddenly, for no reason, in despair. Then falling ill. No matter, all was well again. I had not died, and it was the month of May.

“I think I am strong enough to get up,” I said to her.

“You are no such thing,” she answered. “In a week, perhaps, you shall sit in a chair, by the window there, to feel your feet. And later, walk as far as the boudoir. By the end of the month we may get you below, and sitting out-of-doors. But we shall see.”

Indeed, my rate of progress was much as she had said. I have never in my life felt such a ninny as the first time I sat sideways on the bed, and put my feet upon the floor. The whole room rocked. Seecombe was one side of me, and John the other, and I as weak as a baby newly born.

“Great heavens, madam, he has grown again,” said Seecombe, with the consternation on his face so great I had to sit down again for laughter.

“You can show me for a freak at Bodmin Fair after all,” I said, and then saw myself in the mirror, gaunt and pale, with the brown beard on my chin, for all the world like an apostle.

“I’ve half a mind,” I said, “to go preaching about the countryside. Thousands would follow me. What do you think?” I turned to Rachel.

“I prefer you shaved,” she said gravely.

“Bring me a razor, John,” I said; but when the work was done, and my face bare again, I felt I had lost some sort of dignity and was reduced again to schoolboy status.

Those days of convalescence were pleasant indeed. Rachel was always with me. We did not talk much, because I found conversation tired me sooner than anything else, and brought back some shadow of that aching head. I liked, more than anything, to sit by my open window, and to make diversion Wellington would bring the horses and exercise them round and round the gravel sweep in front of me, like show beasts in a ring. Then, when my legs were stronger, I walked to the boudoir and our meals were taken there, Rachel waiting upon me and caring for me like a nurse with a child; indeed, I said to her on one occasion, if she was doomed to a sick husband for the rest of her life, she had no one to blame but herself. She looked at me strangely when I said this, and was about to speak, then paused, and passed onto something else.

I remembered that for some reason or other our marriage had been kept secret from the servants, I think to allow the full twelve months to lapse since Ambrose died before announcing it; perhaps she was afraid I might be indiscreet in front of Seecombe, so I held my tongue. In two months’ time we could declare it to the world; until then, I would be patient. Each day I think I loved her more; and she, more gentle and more tender than ever in the past months of winter.

I was amazed, when I came downstairs for the first time and went out into the grounds, to see how much had been achieved about the place during my sickness. The terrace walk was now completed, and the sunken garden beside it had now been hollowed away to a great depth, and was ready to be paved with stone and the banks faced. At the moment it yawned, dark and ominous, a deep wide chasm, and the fellows digging there looked up at me, grinning, as I stared down at them from the terrace above.

Tamlyn escorted me with pride to the plantation—Rachel had called in to see his wife, at the nearby cottage—and though the camellias were over, the rhododendrons were still in bloom, and the orange berberis, and leaning to the field below the soft yellow flowers of the laburnum trees hung in clusters, scattering their petals.

“We’ll have to shift them though, another year,” said Tamlyn. “At the rate they’re growing the branches lean down too far to the field, and the seeds will kill the cattle.” He reached up to a branch, and where the flowers had fallen the pods were already forming, with the little seeds within. “There was a fellow the other side of St. Austell who died eating these,” said Tamlyn, and he threw the pod away, over his shoulder.

I had forgotten how brief was their flowering time, like every other blossom, also how beautiful; and suddenly I remembered the drooping tree in the little courtyard in the Italian villa, and the woman from the lodge taking her broom, sweeping the pods away.

“There was a fine tree of this kind,” I said, “in Florence, where Mrs. Ashley had her villa.”

“Yes, sir?” he said. “Well, they grow most things in that climate, I understand. It must be a wonderful place. I can understand the mistress wishing to return.”

“I don’t think she has any intention of returning,” I replied.

“I’m glad of that, sir,” he said, “but we heard different. That she was only waiting to see you restored to health before she went.”

It was incredible what stories were made up from scraps of gossip, and I thought how the announcement of our marriage would be the only means to stop it. Yet I was hesitant to broach the matter to her. It seemed to me that once before there had been discussion on that point, which had made her angry, before I was taken ill.

That evening, when we were sitting in the boudoir and I was drinking my tisana, as had become my custom before going to bed, I said to her, “There is fresh gossip round the countryside.”

“What now?” she asked, lifting her head to look at me.

“Why, that you are going back to Florence,” I replied.

She did not answer me at once, but bent her head again to her embroidery.

“There is plenty of time to decide about these things,” she said. “First, you must get well and strong.”

I looked at her, puzzled. Then Tamlyn had not been entirely in error. The idea of going to Florence was there, somewhere in her mind.

“Have you not sold the villa yet?” I asked.

“Not yet,” she answered, “nor do I intend to sell it after all, or even let it. Now things are changed and I can afford to keep it.”

I was silent. I did not want to hurt her, but the thought of having the two homes was not one that pleased me very well. In fact, I hated the very image of that villa which I held still in my mind, and which I thought by now she hated too.

“Do you mean you would want to spend the winter there?” I asked.

“Possibly,” she said, “or the late summer; but there is no necessity to talk of it.”

“I have been idle too long,” I said. “I don’t think I should leave this place without attention for the winter, or, in fact, be absent from it at all.”

“Probably not,” she said, “in fact, I would not care to leave the property unless you were in charge. You might like to pay me a visit in the spring, and I could show you Florence.”

The illness I had suffered had left me very slow of understanding; nothing of what she said made any sense.

“Pay you a visit?” I said. “Is that how you propose that we should live? Absent from one another for long months at a time?”

She laid down her work and looked at me. There was something of anxiety in her eyes, a shadow on her face.

“Philip dear,” she said, “I have said, I don’t wish to talk about the future now. You have only just recovered from a dangerous illness, and it is bad to start planning the time ahead. I give you my promise I will not leave you until you are well.”

“But why,” I demanded, “is there any need to go at all? You belong here now. This is your home.”

“I have my villa too,” she said, “and many friends, and a life out there—different from this, I know, but nonetheless I am accustomed to it. I have been in England for eight months, and now feel the need for change again. Be reasonable, and try to understand.”

“I suppose,” I said slowly, “I am very selfish. I had not thought of it.” I must make up my mind, then, to the fact that she would want to divide her time between England and Italy, in which case I must do the same, and start looking about for a bailiff to put in charge of the estate. The idea of separation was of course preposterous.

“My godfather may know of someone,” I said, speaking my thoughts aloud.

“Someone for what?” she asked.

“Why, to take over here, when we are absent,” I replied.

“I think it hardly necessary,” she said. “You would not be in Florence more than a few weeks, if you came. Though you might like it so much that you would decide to stay longer. It is very lovely in the spring.”

“Spring be damned,” I said. “Whatever date you decide upon to go, I shall go too.”

Again the shadow on her face, the apprehension in her eye.

“Never mind that now,” she said, “and look, past nine o’clock, later than you have been as yet. Shall I ring for John, or can you manage alone?”

“Ring for no one,” I said. I got up slowly from my chair, for my limbs were still most damnably weak, and I went and knelt beside her, and put my arms about her.

“I find it very hard,” I said, “the solitude of my own room, and you so close, along the corridor. Can we not tell them soon?”

“Tell them what?” she said.

“That we are married,” I replied.

She sat very still in my arms, and did not move. It was almost as if she turned rigid, like something without life.

“Oh, God…” she whispered. Then she put her hands upon my shoulders, and looked into my face. “What do you mean, Philip?” she said.

A pulse somewhere in my head began to beat, like an echo to the pain that had been there the past weeks. It throbbed deeper, ever deeper, and with it came a sense of fear.

“Tell the servants,” I said. “Then it will be right and natural for me to stay with you, because we are married…” But my voice sank away to nothing, because of the expression in her eyes.

“But we are not married, Philip dear,” she said.

Something seemed to burst inside my head.

“We are married,” I said, “of course we are married. It happened on my birthday. Have you forgotten?”

But when had it happened? Where was the church? Who was the minister? All the throbbing pain returned again, and the room swung round about me.

“Tell me it’s true?” I said to her.

Then suddenly I knew that all was fantasy, that the happiness which had been mine for the past weeks was imagination. The dream was broken.

I buried my head against her, sobbing; tears had never come from me like this before, not even as a child. She held me close, her hand stroking my hair, and never speaking. Presently I won command over myself again, and lay down in the chair, exhausted. She brought me something to drink, then sat down on the stool beside me. The shadows of the summer evening played about the room. The bats crept forth from their hiding places in the eaves, and circled in the twilight outside the window.

“It would have been better,” I said, “had you let me die.”

She sighed, and laid her hand against my cheek. “If you say that,” she answered, “you destroy me too. You are unhappy now because you are still weak. But presently, when you are stronger, none of this will seem important. You will go about your work again, on the estate—there will be so much to see to that, from your illness, has been allowed to lapse. The full summer will be here. You can swim again, go sailing in the bay.”

I knew from her voice that she was talking to convince herself, not me.

“What else?” I asked.

“You know very well that you are happy here,” she said; “it is your life, and will continue to be so. You have given me the property, but I shall always look on it as yours. It will be a sort of trust between us.”

“You mean,” I said, “that letters will pass between us, from Italy to England, month after month, throughout the year. I shall say to you, ‘Dear Rachel, The camellias are in bloom.’ And you will reply to me, ‘Dear Philip, I am glad to hear it. My rose-garden is doing very well.’ Is that to be our future?”

I could see myself hanging about the gravel sweep of a morning after breakfast, waiting for the boy to bring the postbag, knowing full well there would be no letter in it, except some bill from Bodmin.

“I would be back again each summer, very probably,” she said, “to see that all went well.”

“Like the swallows, who come only for the season,” I replied, “then take wing again the first week in September.”

“I have already suggested,” she said, “that you visit me in spring. There is much that you would like in Italy. You have not traveled, save the once. You know very little of the world.”

She might have been a teacher, soothing a fractious child. Perhaps it was thus she looked upon me.

“What I have seen,” I answered, “gives me a distaste for all the rest. What would you have me do? Potter about a church or a museum, guidebook in hand? Converse with strangers, to broaden my ideas? I would rather brood at home and watch the rain.”

My voice was harsh and bitter, but I could not help it. She sighed again, and it was as though she searched about for some argument to prove to me that all was well.

“I tell you again,” she insisted, “that when you are better the whole of the future will seem different to you. Nothing is so much changed from what it was. As to the money…” she paused, looking at me.

“What money?” I said.

“The money for the property,” she went on. “All that will be placed on a proper footing, and you shall have enough to run the estate without loss, while I take what I need out of the country. It is all in process of arrangement now.”

She could take every farthing for all I cared. What had any of this to do with what I felt for her? But she went on talking.

“You must continue to make what improvements you feel justified in doing,” she said rapidly. “You know I shall query nothing, you need not even send me the bills, I can trust your judgment. Your godfather will always be near to give advice. In a little while everything will seem to you just the same as it was before I came.”

The room was deep in twilight now. I could not even see her face for the shadows all about us.

“Do you really believe that?” I said to her.

She did not answer at once. She searched for some excuse for my existence, to pile upon those that she had given me already. There were none, and she knew it well. She turned towards me, giving me her hand. “I must believe it,” she said, “or I would have no peace of mind.”

In all the months I had known her she had given me many answers to the questions, serious or otherwise, that I had put to her. Some had been laughing, some evasive, yet each one had some feminine twist to make adornment. This was direct at last, straight from the heart. She must believe me happy, to have peace of mind. I had left the land of fantasy, to her to enter into it. Two persons therefore could not share a dream. Except in darkness, as in make-believe. Each figure, then, a phantom.

“Go back if you will,” I said, “but not just yet. Give me a few weeks more to hold in memory. I am no traveler, you are my world.”

I sought to evade the future and escape. But when I held her it was not the same; faith was gone, and the first ecstasy.