My Cousin Rachel Chapter 3

I think what shamed me most was the delight of his friends, their real pleasure and true thought for his welfare. Congratulations were showered upon me, as a sort of messenger to Ambrose, and in the midst of it all I had to smile, and nod my head, and make out to them that I had known it would happen all along. I felt double-faced, a traitor. Ambrose had so tutored me to hate falsity, in man or beast, that suddenly to find myself pretending to be other than I was came near to agony.

“The best thing that could have happened.” How often I heard the words and had to echo them. I began to shun my neighbors, and skulk at home around the woods, rather than meet the eager faces and the wagging tongues. If I rode out about the farmlands, or into town, there was no escape. Tenants on the estate, or acquaintances from here and there, had but to catch a glimpse of me and I was doomed to conversation. An indifferent actor, I forced a smile onto my face, feeling the skin stretch in protest as I did so, and was obliged to answer questions with a kind of heartiness I hated, a heartiness that the world expects when there is mention of a wedding. “When will they be coming home?” For this there was one answer. “I don’t know. Ambrose has not told me.”

There would be much speculation upon the looks, the age, the general appearance of his bride, to which I would make reply, “She is a widow, and she shares his love for gardens.”

Very suitable, the heads would nod, could not be better, the very thing for Ambrose. And then would follow jocularity, and jesting, and much amusement at the breaking in of a confirmed bachelor to wedlock. That shrew Mrs. Pascoe, the vicar’s lady, ground away upon this subject as if by doing so she won revenge for past insults upon the holy state.

“What a change there will be now, Mr. Ashley,” she said on every possible occasion. “No more go-as-you-please for your household. And a very good thing too. Some organization will at last be brought to bear upon the servants, and I don’t imagine Seecombe being too well pleased. He has had things his own way long enough.”

In this she spoke the truth. I think Seecombe was my one ally, but I was careful not to side with him, and stopped him when he tried to feel his way with me.

“I don’t know what to say, Mr. Philip,” he murmured, gloomy and resigned. “A mistress in the house will have everything upside down, and we shan’t know where we are. There will first be one thing, then another, and probably no pleasing the lady whatever is done for her. I think the time has come for me to retire and give way to a younger man. Perhaps you had better mention the matter to Mr. Ambrose when you write.”

I told him not to be foolish, and that Ambrose and I would be lost without him, but he shook his head and continued to go about the place with a long face, and never let an opportunity pass without making some sad allusion to the future, how the hours of the meals would no doubt be changed, the furniture altered, and an interminable cleaning be ordered from dawn till dusk with no repose for anybody, and, as a final thrust, even the poor dogs destroyed. This prophecy, uttered in sepulchral tones, brought back to me some measure of my own lost sense of humor, and I laughed for the first time since reading Ambrose’s letter.

What a picture Seecombe painted! I had a vision of a regiment of serving girls with mops, sweeping the house free from cobwebs, and the old steward, his underlip jutting in the familiar way, watching them in stony disapproval. His gloom amused me, but when much the same thing was foretold by others—even by Louise Kendall, who knowing me well might have had perception enough to hold her tongue—the remarks brought irritation.

“Thank goodness you will have fresh covers in the library,” she said gaily. “They have gone quite gray with age and wear, but I dare say you never noticed it. And flowers in the house, what an improvement! The drawing room will come into its own at last. I always thought it a waste that it was not used. Mrs. Ashley will furnish it, no doubt, with books and pictures from her Italian villa.”

She ran on and on, going over in her mind a whole list of improvements, until I lost patience with her and said roughly, “For heaven’s sake, Louise, leave the subject alone. I’m sick and tired of it.”

She stopped short then, and looked at me shrewdly.

“You aren’t jealous, are you, by any chance?” she said.

“Don’t be a fool,” I told her.

It was an ugly thing to call her, but we knew each other so well that I thought of her as a younger sister, and had small respect for her.

After that she was silent, and I noticed when the well-worn theme came up again in conversation she glanced across at me, and tried to change it. I was grateful, and liked her the more.

It was my godfather and her father, Nick Kendall, who made the final thrust, unaware of course that he was doing so, and speaking bluntly in his plain straightforward way.

“Have you made any plans for the future, Philip?” he said to me one evening, after I had ridden over to take dinner with them.

“Plans, sir? No,” I said, uncertain of his meaning.

“Early yet, of course,” he answered, “and I suppose you cannot very well do so until Ambrose and his wife return home. I wondered whether you had considered looking around the neighborhood for some small property of your own.”

I was slow to grasp his meaning. “Why should I do that?” I asked.

“Well, the position is somewhat changed, isn’t it?” he said in matter-of-fact tones. “Ambrose and his wife will want most naturally to be together. And if there should be a family, a son, things won’t be the same for you, will they? I am certain Ambrose won’t let you suffer from the change, and will buy you any property you fancy. Of course it is possible they will have no children, but on the other hand there is no reason to suppose they won’t. You might prefer to build. It is sometimes more satisfactory to build your own place than take over a property for sale.”

He continued talking, mentioning places within twenty miles or so of home that I might care to own, and I was thankful that he did not seem to expect a reply to anything he said. The fact was that my heart was too full to answer him. What he suggested was so new and unexpected that I could barely think straight, and shortly afterwards made an excuse to go. Jealous, yes. Louise was right about that, I supposed. The jealousy of a child who must suddenly share the one person in his life with a stranger.

Like Seecombe, I had seen myself doing my utmost to settle down to new uncomfortable ways. Putting out my pipe, rising to my feet, making an effort at conversation, drilling myself to the rigors and tedium of feminine society. And watching Ambrose, my god, behaving like a ninny, so that I should have to leave the room from sheer embarrassment. I had never once seen myself an outcast. No longer wanted, put out of my home and pensioned like a servant. A child arriving, who would call Ambrose father, so that I should be no longer needed.

Had it been Mrs. Pascoe who had drawn my attention to this possibility I should have put it down as malice, and forgotten it. But my own godfather, quiet and calm, making a statement of fact, was different. I rode home, sick with uncertainty and sadness. I hardly knew what to do, or how to act. Should I make plans, as my godfather had said? Find myself a home? Make preparations for departure? I did not want to live anywhere else, or possess another property. Ambrose had brought me up and trained me for this one alone. It was mine. It was his. It belonged to both of us. But now no longer, everything had changed. I can remember wandering about the house, when I came home from visiting the Kendalls, looking upon it with new eyes, and the dogs, seeing my restlessness, followed me, as uneasy as myself. My old nursery, uninhabited for so long, and now the room where Seecombe’s niece came once a week to mend and sort the linen, took on new meaning. I saw it freshly painted, and my small cricket bat that still stood, cobweb-covered on a shelf among a pile of dusty books, thrown out for rubbish. I had not thought before what memories the room held for me, going in and out of it once in two months perhaps, with a shirt to be repaired, or socks to be darned. Now I wanted it for my own again, a haven of refuge from the outer world. Instead of which it would become an alien place, stuffy, smelling of boiled milk and blankets put to dry, like the living rooms of cottages that I so often visited, where there lived young children. In my imagination I could see them crawling with fretful cries upon the floor, forever bumping heads or bruising elbows; or worse, dragging themselves up upon one’s knees, their faces puckering like monkeys if denied. Oh God, was all this in store for Ambrose?

Hitherto, when I had thought of my cousin Rachel—which I did but sparingly, brushing her name from my mind as one does all things unpleasant—I had pictured to myself a woman resembling Mrs. Pascoe, only more so. Large-featured and angular, with a hawk’s eyes for dust as Seecombe prophesied, and far too loud a laugh when there was company for dinner, so that one winced for Ambrose. Now she took on new proportions. One moment monstrous, like poor Molly Bate at the West Lodge, obliging one to avert the eyes from sheer delicacy, and the next pale and drawn, shawl-covered in a chair, with an invalidish petulance about her, while a nurse hovered in the background, mixing medicines with a spoon. One moment middle-aged and forceful, the next simpering and younger than Louise, my cousin Rachel had a dozen personalities or more and each one more hateful than the last. I saw her forcing Ambrose to his knees to play at bears, the children astride his back, and Ambrose consenting with a humble grace, having lost all dignity. Yet again, decked out in muslin, with a ribbon in her hair, I saw her pout and toss her curls, a curving mass of affection, while Ambrose sat back in his chair surveying her, the bland smile of an idiot on his face.

When in mid-May the letter came, saying that after all they had decided to remain abroad throughout the summer, my relief was so intense that I could have shouted aloud. I felt more traitorous than ever, but I could not help it.

“Your cousin Rachel is still so bothered by the tangle of business that must be settled before coming to England,” wrote Ambrose, “that we have decided, although with bitter disappointment, as you may imagine, to defer our return home for the present. I do the best I can, but Italian law is one thing and ours another, and it’s the deuce of a job to reconcile the two. I seem to be spending a mint of money, but it’s in a good cause and I don’t begrudge it. We talk of you often, dear boy, and I wish you could be with us.” And so onto inquiries about the work at home and the state of the gardens, with his usual fervor of interest, so that it seemed to me I must be mad to have thought for a moment he could change.

Disappointment was of course intense throughout the neighborhood that they would not be home this summer.

“Perhaps,” said Mrs. Pascoe, with a meaning smile, “Mrs. Ashley’s state of health forbids her traveling?”

“As to that I cannot say,” I answered. “Ambrose mentioned in his letter that they had spent a week in Venice, and both of them came back with rheumatism.”

Her face fell. “Rheumatism? His wife also?” she said. “How very unfortunate.” And then, reflectively: “She must be older than I thought.”

Vacuous woman, her mind running upon one single train of thought. I had rheumatics in my knees at two years old. Growing pains, my elders told me. Sometimes, after rain, I have them still. For all that, there was some similarity between my mind and Mrs. Pascoe’s. My cousin Rachel aged some twenty years. She had gray hair once more, she even leaned upon a stick, and I saw her, when she wasn’t planting roses in that Italian garden which I could not picture, seated at a table, thumping with her stick on the floor, surrounded by some half-dozen lawyers all jabbering Italian, while my poor Ambrose sat patient at her side.

Why did he not come home and leave her to it?

My spirits rose, though, as the simpering bride gave place to the aging matron, racked with lumbago where it catches most. The nursery receded, and I saw the drawing room become a lady’s boudoir, hedged about with screens, huge fires burning even in midsummer, and someone calling to Seecombe in a testy voice to bring more coal, the draft was killing her. I took to singing once again when I went riding, urged the dogs after young rabbits, swam before breakfast, sailed Ambrose’s little boat about the estuary when the wind favored, and teased Louise about the London fashions when she went to spend the season there. At twenty-three it takes very little to make the spirits soar. My home was still my home. No one had taken it from me.

Then, in the winter, the tone of his letters changed. Imperceptible at first, I scarcely noticed it, yet on rereading his words I became aware of a sense of strain in all he said, some underlying note of anxiety creeping in upon him. Nostalgia for home in part, I could see that. A longing for his own country and his own possessions, but above all a kind of loneliness that struck me as strange in a man but ten months married. He admitted that the long summer and autumn had been very trying, and now the winter was unusually close. Although the villa was high, there was no air in it; he said he used to move about from room to room like a dog before a thunderstorm, but no thunder came. There was no clearing of the air, and he would have given his soul for drenching rain, even if it crippled him. “I was never one for headaches,” he said, “but now I have them frequently. Almost blinding at times. I am sick of the sight of the sun. I miss you more than I can say. So much to talk about, difficult in a letter. My wife is in town today, hence my opportunity to write.” It was the first time that he had used the words “my wife.” Always before he had said Rachel or “your cousin Rachel,” and the words “my wife” looked formal to me, and cold.

In these winter letters there was no talk of coming home, but always a passionate desire to know the news, and he would comment upon any little trifle I had told him in my letters, as though he held no other interest.

Nothing came at Easter, or at Whitsun, and I grew worried. I told my godfather, who said no doubt the weather was holding up the mails. Late snow was reported in Europe, and I could not expect to hear from Florence before the end of May. It was over a year now since Ambrose had been married, eighteen months since he had been home. My first relief at his absence, after his marriage, turned to anxiety that he would not return at all. One summer had obviously tried his health. What would a second do? At last, in July, a letter came, short and incoherent, totally unlike himself. Even his writing, usually so clear, sprawled across the page as if he had had difficulty in holding his pen.

“All is not well with me,” he said, “you must have seen that when I wrote you last. Better keep silent though. She watches me all the time. I have written to you several times, but there is no one I can trust, and unless I can get out myself to mail the letters they may not reach you. Since my illness I have not been able to go far. As for the doctors, I have no belief in any of them. They are liars, the whole bunch. The new one, recommended by Rainaldi, is a cutthroat, but then he would be, coming from that quarter. However, they have taken on a dangerous proposition with me, and I will beat them yet.” Then there was a gap, and something scratched out which I could not decipher, followed by his signature.

I had the groom saddle my horse and rode over to my godfather to show him the letter. He was as much concerned as I was myself. “Sounds like a mental breakdown,” he said at once. “I don’t like it at all. That’s not the letter of a man in his right senses. I hope to heaven…” He broke off, and pursed his lips.

“Hope what?” I asked.

“Your uncle Philip, Ambrose’s father, died of a tumor on the brain. You know that, don’t you?” he said shortly.

I had never heard it before, and told him so.

“Before you were born, of course,” he said. “It was never a matter much discussed in the family. Whether these things are hereditary or not I can’t say, nor can the doctors. Medical science isn’t far enough advanced.” He read the letter again, putting on his spectacles to do so. “There is, of course, another possibility, extremely unlikely, but which I would prefer,” he said.

“And that is?”

“That Ambrose was drunk when he wrote the letter.”

If he had not been over sixty years, and my godfather, I would have hit him for the bare suggestion.

“I have never seen Ambrose drunk in my life,” I told him.

“Nor I either,” he said drily. “I am merely trying to choose the better of two evils. I think you had better make up your mind to go to Italy.”

“That,” I remarked, “I had already decided upon before I came to see you,” and I rode home again, without the remotest idea how to set about the journey.

There was no vessel sailing from Plymouth that would help me. I was obliged to travel up to London, and thence to Dover, catch the packet to Boulogne, and then cross France into Italy by the usual diligence. Granted no delay, I should be in Florence within three weeks or so. My French was poor, my Italian nonexistent, but none of this bothered me as long as I could get to Ambrose. I bade a short farewell to Seecombe and the servants, telling them only that I intended paying a hurried visit to their master but saying nothing of his illness, and so set forth for London on a fine morning in July, with the prospect of nearly three weeks’ traveling in a strange country ahead of me.

As the carriage turned onto the Bodmin road I saw the groom riding towards us with the postbag. I told Wellington to rein the horses, and the boy handed me the bag. The chance was one in a thousand that there would be a further letter from Ambrose, but it so happened that the chance was there. I took the envelope from the bag and sent the boy on home. As Wellington whipped up the horses I drew out the scrap of paper and held it to the window for light.

The words were scrawled, almost illegible.

“For God’s sake come to me quickly. She has done for me at last, Rachel my torment. If you delay, it may be too late. Ambrose.”

That was all. There was no date upon the paper, no mark upon the envelope, which was sealed with his own ring.

I sat in the carriage, the scrap of paper in my hand, knowing that no power on heaven or earth could bring me to him before mid-August.