My Cousin Rachel Chapter 25

We did not speak again of her departure. It was a bogey, thrust into the background by us both. For her sake I strove to appear lighthearted, without care. She did the same, for me. The summer weather was about us, and I soon grew strong again, at least to all appearance; but sometimes the pain in my head returned again, not with its full force, but stabbing, without warning, and for no good reason.

I did not tell her of it—what was the use? It did not come from physical exertion, or when I was outdoors, but only if I put my mind to thinking. Simple problems brought to me in the estate office by the tenants could even do it, so that a fog would seem to settle on me and I be unable to give them a decision.

More often, though, it would happen because of her. I would be looking at her, as we sat perhaps after dinner outside the drawing room window, for the June weather enabled us to sit without of an evening until past nine o’clock; and suddenly I would wonder what went on there, in her mind, as she sat drinking her tisana, watching the dusk creep closer to the trees that fringed the lawn. Did she ponder, in her secret self, how much longer she must endure this life of solitude? Did she think, secretively, “Next week, now he is well, I can safely go?”

That villa Sangalletti, back in Florence, had for me now another shape and atmosphere. Instead of the shuttered darkness I had seen on that one visit I saw it now as brightly lit, with all the windows wide. Those unknown people whom she called her friends wandered from room to room; there was gaiety and laughter, much noise of conversation. A sort of brilliance hung above the place, and all the fountains played. She would move from guest to guest, smiling and at ease, mistress of her domain. This, then, was the life she knew, and loved, and understood. Her months with me were an interlude. Thankfully, she would return to the home where she belonged. I could picture the first arrival, with the man Giuseppe and his wife flinging wide the iron gates to admit her carrozza, and then her happy eager pacing through the rooms she knew so well and had not seen for long, asking her servants questions, receiving their replies, opening the many letters there awaiting her, content, serene, with all the myriad threads of an existence to pick up again and hold that I could never know and never share. So many days and nights, no longer mine.

Presently she would feel my eyes upon her, and would say, “What is the matter, Philip?”

“Nothing,” I would reply.

And as the shadow passed across her face, doubtful, distressed, I felt myself a burden on her shoulders. She would be better quit of me. I tried to lose my energies, as of old, in the running of the place, in the common tasks of day by day; but it no longer meant the same to me. What if the Barton acres were all dried through lack of rain? I could not greatly care. And if our stock won prizes at the Show, and so were the champions of the county, was this glory? Last year, it might have been. But now, what an empty triumph.

I could see myself losing favor in the eyes of all who looked upon me as their master. “You are still weak, Mr. Ashley, after that sickness,” said Billy Rowe, the farmer at the Barton; and there was a world of disappointment in his voice that I had failed to show enthusiasm for his achievements. It was the same with all the rest. Even Seecombe took me to task.

“You don’t seem to pick up as you should, Mr. Philip,” he said. “We were talking of it, in the steward’s room, last evening. ‘What’s come to the master?’ Tamlyn said to me. ‘He’s whisht as a ghost on Hallowe’en, and looks at nothing.’ I would advise marsala in the morning. There is nothing like a wineglass of marsala to restore the blood.”

“Tell Tamlyn,” I said to Seecombe, “to go about his business. I am perfectly well.”

The routine of Sunday dinner, with the Pascoes and the Kendalls, had not yet been restored, which was a mercy. I think poor Mary Pascoe had returned to the rectory, after I fell ill, with tales that I was mad. I saw her look at me askance, in church, the first morning that I went when I was well; and the whole family eyed me with a sort of pity, inquiring for me with low voices and averted gaze.

My godfather came to see me, also Louise. They too assumed an unaccustomed manner, a blend of cheerfulness and sympathy, suited to a child who had been sick; and I felt they had been warned not to touch upon any subject that might cause me concern. The four of us sat like strangers in the drawing room. My godfather, I thought, is ill at ease, and wishing he had not come, but feels it to be his duty to call upon me; while Louise, with some odd instinct possessed by women, knows what has happened here and shrinks at thought of it. Rachel, as always, was in command of the situation, and kept the tenor of the conversation on the level that was required. The county Show, the betrothal of the second Pascoe daughter, the warmth of the present weather, the prospect of a change in Government—all these were easy matters. But what if we spoke the things we really thought?

“Get out of England soon, before you destroy yourself and this boy with you,” thus my godfather.

“You love her more than ever. I can see it, by your eyes,” from Louise.

“I must prevent them from making Philip anxious, at all costs,” so Rachel.

And myself, “Leave me alone with her, and go…”

Instead, we clung to courtesy, and lied. Each one of us breathed the easier at the termination of the visit, and as I watched them drive to the park gates, no doubt thankful to be away, I wished I could erect a fence about the property, as in the old enchanted tales of childhood, to keep away all callers, and disaster too.

It seemed to me, though she said nothing, that she planned the first steps towards departure. I would find her, of an evening, sorting through her books, arranging them as people do who wish to make a choice between the volumes they take with them and those they leave behind. Another time she would be sitting at the bureau, putting her papers into order, filling the wastepaper basket with torn scraps and discarded letters, and tying up the rest with bands of tape. All this would stop, once I came into the boudoir, and going to her chair she would take up her work, or sit beside the window; but I was not deceived. Why the sudden desire for making all things straight, unless she was soon to leave the boudoir empty?

It seemed to me the room looked barer than it had before. Trifles were missing. A work-basket that had stood through the spring and winter in one corner, a shawl that had lain over the elbow of a chair, a crayon sketch of the house, presented to her by a caller one winter’s day, that used to be on the mantelpiece—all were there no more. It took me back to my boyhood, before I went away for the first time, to school. Seecombe had made a clearance in the nursery, tying my books in bundles that would go with me, and the rest, that were not favorites, were placed in a separate box for the children on the estate. There were coats I had outgrown, which were sadly worn; and I remember he insisted that I should hand them down to smaller boys less fortunate than I, which I resented. It was as though he took the happy past away from me. Now something of the same atmosphere clung to Rachel’s boudoir. That shawl, had she given it away because she would not need it in a warmer climate? The workbox, was it dismantled, and now reposing at the bottom of a trunk? No sign, as yet, of actual trunks themselves. That would be the final warning. The heavy footsteps in the attic, the boys descending, boxes borne between them, and a kind of dusty cobweb smell, woven about with camphor. Then I would know the worst, and like the dogs with uncanny sense of change, await the end. Another thing was that she started to go out driving in the morning, which she had not done before. She would tell me she had shopping she wished to do, and business at the bank. These things were possible. I should have thought one journey would have settled them. But three mornings in one week followed upon each other, with one day spaced between, and now yet again, in the week that was upon us, twice she had driven into town. The first time it was a morning. The second, afternoon. “You have,” I said to her, “the devil of a lot of shopping of a sudden, and business too…”

“I would have done it all before,” she answered, “but could not do so all the weeks that you were ill.”

“Do you meet anyone as you go about the town?”

“Why, no, not in particular. Yes, now I think of it. I saw Belinda Pascoe and the curate to whom she is engaged. They sent you their respects.”

“But,” I insisted, “you were away all afternoon. Did you buy up all the contents of the drapers?”

“No,” she said. “You are really very curious, and prying. Can I not order the carriage when I please, or do you fear to tire the horses?”

“Drive to Bodmin or to Truro if you please,” I said, “you will find better shopping there, and more to see.”

She did not care for it, then, when I questioned her. Her business must be very personal and private, that she was so reserved.

The next time she ordered the carriage the groom did not go with them. Wellington drove her alone. It seemed that Jimmy had the earache. I had been in the office, and I found him sitting in the stable, nursing his injured ear.

“You must ask the mistress for some oil,” I said to him. “I’m told that is the remedy.”

“Yes, sir,” he said, disconsolate, “she promised to see to it for me, by and by on her return. I think I caught cold in it yesterday. There was a fresh wind blowing on the quay.”

“What were you doing on the quay?” I asked.

“We were waiting a long while for the mistress,” he answered, “so Mr. Wellington thought best to bait the horses in the Rose and Crown, and he let me go off and watch the boats in the harbor.”

“Was the mistress shopping then all afternoon?” I asked.

“No, sir,” he replied, “she didn’t shop at all. She was in the parlor at the Rose and Crown, the same as always.”

I stared at him in disbelief. Rachel in the parlor of the Rose and Crown? Did she sit taking tea with the landlord and his wife? For a moment I thought to question him further, then decided against it. It might be he was speaking out of turn, and would be scolded by Wellington for blabbing. All things were kept from me these days, it seemed. The whole household was in league against me, in a conspiracy of silence. “Well, Jim,” I said, “I hope your ear will soon be better,” and left him in the stable. But here was mystery. Had Rachel grown so desirous of company that she had to seek it in the town inn? Knowing my dislike of visitors, did she hire the parlor for a morning, or an afternoon, and bid people visit her there? I said nothing of the matter, on her return, but merely asked her if she had passed a pleasant afternoon, and she replied she had.

The following day she did not order the carriage. She told me, at luncheon, that she had letters to write, and went up to her boudoir. I said I had to walk to Coombe, to see the farmer there, which was true enough, and so I did. But I went further. Into the town myself. It was a Saturday, and because of the fine weather many folk were out about the streets, people from the neighboring market towns, who did not know me by sight, so that I passed among them unobserved. I saw no one I knew. The “quality,” as Seecombe termed them, never went into the town of an afternoon, and never on a Saturday.

I leaned over the harbor wall, near to the quay, and saw some boys fishing from a boat, getting themselves entangled in their lines. Presently they sculled towards the steps and clambered out. One of them I recognized. It was the lad who helped behind the bar in the Rose and Crown. He had three or four fine bass on a piece of string.

“You’ve done well,” I said. “Are they for supper?”

“Not for me, sir,” he grinned, “they’ll be welcome at the inn though, I’ll be bound.”

“Do you serve bass now with the cider?” I asked.

“No,” he said, “this fish is for the gentleman in the parlor. He had a piece of salmon yesterday, from up the river.”

A gentleman in the parlor. I pulled some silver from my pocket.

“Well,” I said, “I hope he pays you well. Here’s this for luck. Who is your visitor?”

He screwed his face into another grin. “Don’t know his name, sir,” he replied, “Italian, they say he is. From foreign parts.”

And he ran off across the quay, with his fish dangling from the string over his shoulder. I glanced at my watch. It was after three o’clock. No doubt the gentleman from foreign parts would dine at five. I walked through the town, and down the narrow alleyway to the boathouse where Ambrose had kept his sails and gear for the sailing boat he used to use. The small pram was made fast to the frape. I pulled in the pram, and climbed down into it; then paddled out into the harbor and lay off, a little distance from the quay.

There were several fellows pulling to and from the vessels anchored in the channel, to the town steps; and they did not notice me, or if they did cared little, and took me for a fisherman. I threw the weight into the water and rested on my paddles, and watched the entrance of the Rose and Crown. The bar entrance was in the side street. He would not enter that way. If he came at all, it would be by the front. An hour passed. The church clock struck four. Still I waited. At a quarter before five I saw the landlord’s wife come out of the parlor entrance and look about her, as though in search of someone. Her visitor was late for supper. The fish was cooked. I heard her call out to a fellow standing by the boats that were fastened to the steps, but I did not catch her words. He shouted back at her and, turning, pointed out towards the harbor. She nodded her head, and went back inside the inn. Then, ten minutes after five, I saw a boat approaching the town steps. Pulled by a lusty fellow in the bows, the boat itself new varnished, it had all the air of one hired out for strangers, who cared to be rowed about the harbor for their pleasure.

A man, with a broad-brimmed hat upon his head, was seated in the stern. They came to the steps. The man climbed out and gave the fellow money, after slight argument, then turned towards the inn. As he stood for a moment on the steps, before entering the Rose and Crown, he took off his hat and looked about him, with that air of putting a price on all he saw that I could not mistake. I was so near, I could have tossed a biscuit at him. Then he went inside. It was Rainaldi.

I hauled up the weight and pulled back to the boathouse, made the boat fast, walked through the town, and up the rope walk to the cliffs. I think I covered the four miles to home in forty minutes. Rachel was in the library waiting for me. Dinner had been put back because I had not come. She came towards me, anxious.

“At last you have returned,” she said. “I have been very worried. Where were you, then?”

“Out rowing, in the harbor,” I answered her. “Fine weather for excursions. Far better on the water than inside the Rose and Crown.”

The startled shock that came into her eyes was all I needed for the final proof.

“All right, I know your secret,” I continued. “Don’t think up any lies.”

Seecombe came in to ask if he should serve dinner.

“Do so, at once,” I said, “I shall not change.”

I stared at her, saying no more, and we went in to dinner. Seecombe was all concern, sensing something wrong. He hovered at my elbow like a doctor, tempting me to taste the dishes that he proffered.

“You have overtaxed your strength, sir,” he said, “this will not do at all. We shall have you ill again.”

He looked at Rachel for confirmation, and for backing. She said nothing. As soon as dinner was over, which each of us had barely tasted, Rachel rose to her feet and went straight upstairs. I followed her. When she came to the door of the boudoir she would have closed it against me, but I was too quick for her and stood inside the room, with my back against it. The look of apprehension came to her eyes again. She went away from me, and stood by the mantelpiece.

“How long has Rainaldi been staying at the Rose and Crown?” I said.

“That is my business,” she replied.

“Mine also. Answer me,” I said.

I think she saw there was no hope to keep me quiet, or fob me off with fables. “Very well then, for the past two weeks,” she answered.

“Why is he here?” I said.

“Because I asked him. Because he is my friend. Because I needed his advice, and, knowing your dislike, could not ask him to this house.”

“Why should you need his advice?”

“That, again, is my business. Not yours. Stop behaving like a child, Philip, and have some understanding.”

I was glad to see her so distressed. It showed she was at fault.

“You ask me to have understanding,” I said. “Do you expect me to understand deceit? You have been lying every day to me for the past two weeks, and cannot deny it.”

“If I have deceived you, it was not willingly,” she said. “I did it for your sake only. You hate Rainaldi. If you had known that I was meeting him, this scene would have come the sooner, and you would have been ill in consequence. Oh, God—must I go through this all again? First with Ambrose, and now with you?”

Her face was white and strained, but whether from fear or anger was hard to tell. I stood with my back against the door and watched her.

“Yes,” I said, “I hate Rainaldi, as did Ambrose. And with reason.”

“What reason, for pity’s sake?”

“He is in love with you. And has been, now, for years.”

“What utter nonsense…” She paced up and down the little room, from the fireplace to the window, her hands clasped in front of her. “Here is a man who has stood beside me through every trial and trouble. Who has never misjudged me, or tried to see me as other than I am. He knows my faults, my weaknesses, and does not condemn them, but accepts me at my own value. Without his help, through all the years that I have known him—years of which you know nothing—I would have been lost indeed. Rainaldi is my friend. My only friend.”

She paused, and looked at me. No doubt it was the truth, or so distorted in her mind that, to her, it became so. It made no difference to my judging of Rainaldi. Some of his reward he held already. The years of which, so she just told me, I knew nothing. The rest would come in time. Next month, perhaps, next year—but finally. He had a wealth of patience. But not I, nor Ambrose.

“Send him away, back where he belongs,” I said.

“He will go, when he is ready,” she replied, “but if I need him he will stay. Indeed, if you try and threaten me again I will have him in this house, as my protector.”

“You would not dare,” I said.

“Dare? Why not? The house is mine.”

So we had come to battle. Her words were a challenge that I could not meet. Her woman’s brain worked differently from mine. All argument was fair, all blows were foul. Physical strength alone disarmed a woman. I made one step towards her, but she was at the fireplace, with her hand upon the bell-rope.

“Stay where you are,” she cried, “or I shall ring for Seecombe. Do you want to be shamed in front of him, when I tell him that you tried to strike me?”

“I was not going to strike you,” I replied. I turned, and opened wide the door. “All right,” I said, “call for Seecombe, if you wish. Tell him all that has happened here, between us. If we must have violence and shame, let us have it in full measure.”

She stood by the bell-rope, I by the open door. She let the bell-rope fall. I did not move. Then, tears coming to her eyes, she looked at me and said, “A woman can’t suffer twice. I have had all this before.” And lifting her fingers to her throat she added, “Even the hands around my neck. That too. Now will you understand?”

I looked over her head, straight at the portrait above the mantelpiece, and the young face of Ambrose staring at me was my own. She had defeated both of us.

“Yes,” I said, “I understand. If you want to see Rainaldi, ask him here. I would rather that, than that you crept to meet him at the Rose and Crown.”

And I left her in the boudoir, and went back to my room.

Next day he came to dinner. She had sent a note to me at breakfast, asking permission to invite him, her challenge of the night before forgotten no doubt, or expediently put aside, to restore me to position. I sent a note back in return, saying I would give orders for Wellington to fetch him in the carriage. He arrived at half-past four.

It happened that I was alone in the library when he came, and by some error on the part of Seecombe he was shown in to me, and not into the drawing room. I rose from my chair, and bade him good afternoon. He seemed greatly at his ease, and offered me his hand.

“I hope you are recovered,” he said, in greeting me. “In fact, I think you look better than I expected. All the reports I had of you were bad. Rachel was much concerned.”

“Indeed, I am very well,” I said to him.

“The fortune of youth,” he said. “What it is to have good lungs, and good digestion, so that in the space of a few weeks all traces of sickness leave you. No doubt you are already galloping about the countryside on horseback. Whereas we older people, like your cousin and myself, go carefully, to avoid all strain. Personally, I consider a nap in the immediate afternoon essential to middle age.”

I asked him to sit down and he did so, smiling a little as he looked about him. “No alterations to this room as yet?” he said. “Perhaps Rachel intends to leave it so, as giving atmosphere. Just as well. The money can be better spent on other things. She tells me much has been already done about the grounds, since my last visit. Knowing Rachel, I can well believe it. But I must see first, before I give approval. I regard myself as a trustee, to hold a balance.”

He took a thin cigar from his case, and lit it, still smiling as he did so. “I had a letter to you, written in London,” he said, “after you made over your estate, and would have sent it, but that I had the news of your illness. There was little in the letter that I can’t say now to your face. It was merely thanking you, for Rachel’s sake, and assuring you that I would take great care to see there was no great loss to you in the transaction. I shall watch all expenditure.” He puffed a cloud of smoke into the air, and gazed up at the ceiling. “That candelabra,” he said, “was not chosen with great taste. We could do better for you than that, in Italy. I must remember to tell Rachel to make a note of these things. Good pictures, good furniture and fittings, are all sound investments. Eventually, you will find we shall hand the property back to you with double value. However, that’s in the distant future. And you by that time, no doubt, with grown sons of your own. Rachel and myself, old people in wheeled chairs.” He laughed, and smiled at me again. “And how is the charming Miss Louise?” he said to me.

I told him I believed that she was well. I watched him smoking his cigar, and thought how smooth his hands were for a man. They had a kind of feminine quality that did not fit in with the rest of him, and the great ring, on his little finger, was out of place.

“When do you go back to Florence?” I asked him.

He flicked the ash that had fallen on his coat down to the grate.

“It depends on Rachel,” he said. “I return to London to settle my business there, and then shall either go home ahead of her, to prepare the villa and the servants for her reception, or wait and travel with her. You know, of course, that she intends to go?”

“Yes,” I answered.

“I am relieved that you have not put any pressure upon her to remain,” he said. “I quite understand, that with your illness you became greatly dependent on her; she told me as much. And she has been anxious to spare your feelings in every way. But, as I explained to her, this cousin of yours is now a man, and not a child. If he cannot stand upon his own feet, he must learn to do so. Am I not right?” he asked me.


“Women, especially Rachel, act always from emotion. We men, more usually though not always so, with reason. I am glad to see you sensible. Perhaps in spring, when you visit us in Florence, you will allow me to show you some of the treasures there. You will not be disappointed.” He blew another cloud of smoke up to the ceiling.

“When you say ‘we,’ ” I ventured, “do you use it in the royal sense, as if you owned the city, or is it a legal phrase?”

“Forgive me,” he said, “but I am so accustomed to acting for Rachel, even to thinking for her, in so many ways, that I can never entirely dissociate myself from her and so fall to using that particular pronoun personal.” He looked across at me. “In time,” he said, “I have good reason to believe that I shall come to use it in a sense more intimate. But that”—he gestured, his cigar in hand—“is in the laps of the gods. Ah, here she comes.”

He stood up, and so did I, when Rachel came into the room; and as she gave her hand to him, which he took and kissed, she made him welcome in Italian. Perhaps it was watching them at dinner, I do not know—his eyes, that never left her face, her smile, her change of manner with him—but I felt, rising within me, a sort of nausea. The food I ate tasted of dust. Even the tisana, which she made for the three of us to drink when dinner was over, had a bitter unaccustomed tang. I left them, sitting in the garden, and went up to my room. As soon as I had gone I heard their voices break into Italian. I sat in the chair by my window, where I had sat during those first days and weeks of convalescence, and she beside me; and it was as though the whole world had turned evil, and of a sudden, sour. I could not bring myself to descend and say good night to him. I heard the carriage come, I heard the carriage drive away. I went on sitting in my chair. Presently Rachel came up and tapped upon my door. I did not answer. She opened it, and entering the room came to my side, and put her hand upon my shoulder.

“What is it now?” she asked. There was a sort of sigh about her voice, as if she had reached the limit of endurance. “He could not have been more courteous, or kind,” she said to me. “What fault was there tonight?”

“None,” I answered.

“He speaks so well of you to me,” she said, “if you could only hear him, you would realize that he has a great regard for you. This evening you surely could not take exception to anything he said? If only you could be less difficult, less jealous…”

She drew the curtains of my room, for dusk was nearly come. Even in her gesture, the way she touched the curtain, there was impatience.

“Are you going to sit there, hunched in that chair, till midnight?” she asked. “If so, put a wrap about you, or you will take cold. For my part, I am exhausted and shall go to bed.”

She touched my head, and went. Not a caress. The quick gesture of someone patting a child who has misbehaved, the adult finding herself too lost in tedium to continue scolding, but brushing the whole aside. “There… there… For heaven’s sake, have done.”

That night fever returned to me again. Not with the old force, but something similar. Whether it was chill or not, caught from sitting in the boat in the harbor twenty-four hours before, I do not know, but in the morning I was too giddy to stand upright upon the floor, and fell to retching and to shuddering, and was obliged to go back to bed again. The doctor was sent for, and with my aching head I wondered if the whole miserable business of my illness was to set in with repetition. He pronounced my liver out of order, and left medicine. But when Rachel came to sit with me, in the afternoon, it seemed to me she had upon her face that same expression of the night before, a kind of weariness. I could imagine the thought within her, “It is going to start again? Am I doomed to sit here as a nurse to all eternity?” She was more brusque with me, as she handed me my medicine; and when later I was thirsty, and wished to drink, I did not ask her for the glass, for fear of giving trouble.

She had a book in her hands, which she did not read, and her presence in the chair beside me seemed to hold a mute reproach.

“If you have other things to do,” I said at last, “don’t sit with me.”

“What else do you suppose I have to do?” she answered.

“You might wish to see Rainaldi.”

“He has gone,” she said.

My heart was the lighter for the news. I was almost well.

“He has returned to London?” I inquired.

“No,” she answered, “he sailed from Plymouth yesterday.”

My relief was so intense that I had to turn away my head lest I showed it in my face, and so increased her irritation.

“I thought he had business still to do in England?”

“So he had; but we decided it could be done just as well by correspondence. Matters of greater urgency attended him at home. He had news of a vessel due to sail at midnight, and so went. Now are you satisfied?”

Rainaldi had left the country, I was satisfied with that. But not with the pronoun “we”; nor that she spoke of home. I knew why he had gone—to warn the servants at the villa to make ready for their mistress. There was the urgency attending him. My sands were running out.

“When will you follow him?”

“It depends on you,” she answered.

I supposed, if I wished, I could continue to feel ill. Complain of pain, and make excuse of sickness. Drag on, pretending, for a few weeks more. And then? The boxes packed, the boudoir bare, her bed in the blue room covered with the dust-sheet that had been upon it all the years before she came, and silence.

“If,” she sighed, “you would only be less bitter and less cruel, these last days could be happy.”

Was I bitter? Was I cruel? I had not thought so. It seemed to me the hardness was in her. There was no remedy. I reached out for her hand, and she gave it me. Yet as I kissed it I kept thinking of Rainaldi…

That night I dreamed I climbed to the granite stone and read the letter once again, buried beneath it. The dream was so vivid that it did not fade with waking, but remained throughout the morning. I got up, and was well enough to go downstairs, as usual, by midday. Try as I would, I could not shake off the desire within me to read the letter once again. I could not remember what it said about Rainaldi. I must know, for certainty, what it was Ambrose had said of him. In the afternoon Rachel went to her room to rest, and as soon as she had gone I slipped away through the woods and down to the avenue, and climbed the path above the keeper’s cottage, filled with loathing for what I meant to do. I came to the granite slab. I knelt beside it and, digging with my hands, felt suddenly the soggy leather of my pocketbook. A slug had made its home there for the winter. The trail across the front was sticky. I knocked it off, and opening the pocketbook took out the crumpled letter. The paper was damp and limp, the lettering more faded than before, but still decipherable. I read the letter through. The first part more hastily, though it was strange that his illness, from another cause, could have been, in symptoms, so much similar to mine. But to Rainaldi…

“As the months passed,” wrote Ambrose, “I noticed more and more how 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 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 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.”

There it was, the sentence I had not forgotten, which had haunted me. Where the paper folded the words were indistinct, until I caught again the word “Rainaldi.” “I will come down to the terrace,” Ambrose said, “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 pain 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, only come.

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

This time I did not put the letter back into the pocketbook. I tore it piece by piece into tiny shreds, and ground the shreds into the earth with my heel. Each shred was scattered, and then ground, in a separate place. The pocketbook, soggy from its sojourn in the earth, I was able to wrench in two with a single twist. I flung each half over my shoulder, and they fell among the bracken. Then I walked home. It seemed like a postscript to the letter, that when I entered the hall Seecombe was just bringing in the postbag, that the boy had fetched from town. He waited while I unlocked it, and there, amid the few there were for me, was one to Rachel, with the Plymouth mark upon it. I needed but to glance at the thin spidery hand to know that it was from Rainaldi. I think, if Seecombe had not been there, I would have kept it. As it was, there was nothing for it but to give it him to take up to Rachel.

It was ironic, too, that when I went up to her a little later, saying nothing of my walk or where I had been, all her sharpness with me seemed to have gone. The old tenderness had returned. She held out her arms to me, and smiled, and asked me how I felt and if I was rested. She said nothing of the letter she had received. I wondered, during dinner, whether the news it had contained had made her happy; and, as I sat eating, I pictured to myself the framework of his letter, what he had said to her, how he addressed her—if, in short, it were a letter of love. It would be written in Italian. But here and there, though, there might be words I should understand. She had taught me a few phrases. I would know, at any rate, with the first words, the relationship they bore to one another.

“You are very silent. Are you well?” she said.

“Yes,” I answered, “I am well,” and flushed, lest she should read my mind and guess what I meant to do.

After dinner we went up to her boudoir. She prepared the tisana, as usual, and set it down in its cup on the table by my side, and hers as well. On the bureau lay Rainaldi’s letter, half covered by her handkerchief. My eyes were drawn towards it, fascinated. Would an Italian, writing to the woman he loved, keep to formality? Or setting sail from Plymouth, with the prospect of a few weeks’ separation, and having dined well, drunk his brandy and smoked his cigar, and smiling in complaisance, would he turn to indiscretion and permit himself the license of spilling love on paper?

“Philip,” said Rachel, “you keep your eyes fixed on one corner of the room as though you saw a ghost. What is the matter?”

“I tell you nothing,” I said. And for the first time lied, as I knelt beside her pretending an urgency of longing and of love, so that her questions might be stilled, and that she would forget the letter lying on the desk and leave it there.

Late that night, long after midnight, when I knew she slept—for standing in her room with a lighted candle I looked down on her and saw that it was so—I went back into the boudoir. The handkerchief was still there, the letter gone. I looked in the fire, no ashes in the grate. I opened the drawers of the bureau, and there were her papers all in order, but not the letter. It was not in the pigeonholes, nor the little drawers beside it. There remained only one drawer, and that was locked. I took my knife and edged it in the crack. Something white showed, from inside the drawer. I went back to the bedroom, took the bunch of keys from the bedside table, and tried the smallest. It fitted. The drawer opened. I put in my hand and pulled out an envelope, but as I did so my tense excitement turned to disappointment, for it was not Rainaldi’s letter that I held in my hands. It was just an envelope, containing pods, with seeds. The seeds ran from the pods onto my hands, and spilled upon the floor. They were very small, and green. I stared at them, and remembered that I had seen pods and seeds like these before. They were the same as those that Tamlyn had thrown over his shoulder in the plantation, and that had also covered the court in the villa Sangalletti, which the servant there had swept away.

They were laburnum seeds, poisonous to cattle, and to men.