My Cousin Rachel Chapter 4

When the conveyance brought me and the other passengers to Florence and dumped us down at the hostelry beside the Arno, I felt I had been a lifetime upon the road. It was now the fifteenth of August. No traveler, setting his foot upon the continent of Europe for the first time, was ever less impressed than I. The roads we traversed, the hills and valleys, the cities, French or Italian, where we halted for the night, seemed all alike to me. Everywhere was dirty, verminous, and I was nearly deafened by the noise. Used to the silence of a well-nigh empty house—for the servants slept away in their own quarters beneath the clock tower—where I heard no sound at night but the wind in the trees and the lash of rain when it blew from the southwest, the ceaseless clatter and turmoil of foreign cities came near to stupefying me.

I slept, yes, who does not sleep at twenty-four, after long hours upon the road, but into my dreams came all the alien sounds; the banging of doors, the screech of voices, footsteps beneath the window, cart wheels on the cobbled stones, and always, every quarter, the chime of a church bell. Perhaps, had I come abroad upon some other errand, it would have been different. Then, I might have leaned from my window in the early mornings with a lighter heart, watched the barefooted children playing in the gutter and thrown coins to them, heard all the new sounds and voices with fascination, wandered at night among the narrow twisting streets and come to like them. As it was, I looked upon what I saw with indifference, passing to hostility. My need was to reach Ambrose, and because I knew him to be ill in a foreign country my anxiety turned to loathing of all things alien, even of the very soil itself.

It grew hotter every day. The sky was a glazed hard blue, and it seemed to me, twisting and turning along those dusty roads in Tuscany, that the sun had drawn all moisture from the land. The valleys were baked brown, and the little villages hung parched and yellow on the hills with the haze of heat upon them. Oxen lumbered by, thin-looking, bony, searching for water, goats scuffed by the wayside, tended by little children who screamed and shouted as the coach rolled by, and it seemed to me, in my anxiety and fear for Ambrose, that all living things were thirsty in this country, and when water was denied they fell into decay and died.

My first instinct, on climbing from the coach in Florence, as the dusty baggage was unloaded and carried within the hostelry, was to cross the cobbled street and stand beside the river. I was travel-stained and weary, covered from head to foot with dust. For the past two days I had sat beside the driver rather than die from suffocation within, and like the poor beasts upon the road I longed for water. There it was before me. Not the blue estuary of home, rippling, and salty fresh, whipped with sea spray, but a slow-moving turgid stream, brown like the riverbed beneath it, oozing and sucking its way under the arches of the bridge, and ever and again its flat smooth surface breaking into bubbles. Waste matter was borne away upon this river, wisps of straw, and vegetation, yet to my imagination, fevered almost with fatigue and thirst, it was something to be tasted, swallowed, poured down the throat as one might pour a draft of poison.

I stood watching the moving water, fascinated, and the sun beat down upon the bridge, and suddenly, from behind me in the city, a great bell chimed four o’clock, deep-sounding, solemn. The chime was taken up by other bells from other churches, and the sound mingled with the surging river as it passed, brown and slimy, over the stones.

A woman stood by my side, a whimpering child in her arms, another dragging at her torn skirt, and she stretched out her hand to me for alms, her dark eyes lifted to mine in supplication. I gave her a coin and turned away, but she continued to touch my elbow, whispering, until one of the passengers, still standing by the coach, let forth a string of words at her in Italian, and she shrank back again to the corner of the bridge whence she had come. She was young, not more than nineteen or so, but the expression on her face was ageless, haunting, as though she possessed in her lithe body an old soul that could not die; centuries in time looked out from those two eyes, she had contemplated life so long it had become indifferent to her. Later, when I had mounted to the room they showed me, and stood out upon the little balcony that gave upon the square, I saw her creep away between the horses and the carrozzas waiting there, stealthy as a cat that slinks by night, its belly to the ground.

I washed and changed my clothes with a strange apathy. Now that I had reached my journey’s end a sort of dullness came upon me, and the self which had set forth upon his journey excited, keyed to a high pitch and ready for any battle, existed no longer. In his place a stranger stood, dispirited and weary. Excitement had long since vanished. Even the reality of the torn scrap of paper in my pocket had lost substance. It had been written many weeks ago; so much could have happened since. She might have taken him away from Florence; they might have gone to Rome, to Venice, and I saw myself dragged back to that lumbering coach again, in their wake. Swaying through city after city, traversing the length and breadth of the accursed country, and never finding them, always defeated by time and the hot dusty roads.

Or yet again, the whole thing might be an error, the letters scribbled as a crazy jest, one of those leg-pulls loved by Ambrose in days gone by, when as a child I would fall into some trap he set for me. And I might go now to seek him at the villa and find some celebration, dinner in progress, guests invited, lights and music; and I would be shown in upon the company with no excuse to offer, Ambrose in good health turning astounded eyes upon me.

I went downstairs and out into the square. The carrozzas that had been waiting there had driven off. The siesta hour was over, and the streets were crowded once again. I plunged into them and was lost at once. About me were dark courts and alleyways, tall houses touching one another, jutting balconies, and as I walked, and turned, and walked again, faces peered at me from the doorways, passing figures paused and stared, all wearing upon them that same age-old look of suffering and passion long since spent which I had first noticed on the beggar girl. Some of them followed me, whispering as she had done, stretching out their hands, and when I spoke roughly, remembering my fellow passenger from the coach, they drew back again, flattening themselves against the walls of the tall houses, and watched me pass on, with a strange smoldering pride. The church bells began to clamor once again, and I came to a great piazza where the people stood thickly, clustered together in groups, talking, gesticulating, having, so it seemed to my alien eyes, no connection with the buildings fringing the square, austere and beautiful, nor with the statues remotely staring with blind eyes upon them, nor with the sound of the bells themselves, echoing loud and fateful to the sky.

I hailed a passing carrozza, and when I said doubtfully the words “Villa Sangalletti” the driver answered something which I could not understand, but I caught the word “Fiesole” as he nodded and pointed with his whip. We drove through the narrow crowded streets, and he shouted to the horse, the reins jingling, the people falling back from us as we passed among them. The bells ceased and died away, yet the echo seemed to sound still in my ears, solemn, sonorous, tolling not for my mission, insignificant and small, nor for the lives of the people in the streets, but for the souls of men and women long since dead, and for eternity.

We climbed a long twisting road towards the distant hills, and Florence lay behind us. The buildings fell away. It was peaceful, silent, and the hot staring sun that had beaten down upon the city all day, glazing the sky, turned gentle suddenly, and soft. The glare was gone. The yellow houses and the yellow walls, even the brown dust itself, were not so parched as they had been before. Color came back to the houses, faded perhaps, subdued, but with an afterglow more tender now that the full force of the sun was spent. Cypress trees, shrouded and still, turned inky green.

The driver drew up his carrozza before a closed gate set in a long high wall. He turned in his seat and looked down at me over his shoulder. “Villa Sangalletti,” he said. The end of my journey.

I made signs to him to wait, and, getting out, walked up to the gate and pulled at the bell that hung there on the wall. I could hear it jangle from within. My driver coaxed his horse into the side of the road, and climbing from his seat stood by the ditch, waving the flies away from his face with his hat. The horse drooped, poor half-starved brute, between his shafts; he had not spirit enough after his climb to crop the wayside, and dozed, with twitching ears. There was no sound from within the gate, and I rang the bell again. This time there was a muffled barking of a dog, becoming suddenly louder as some door was opened; the fretful cry of a child was hushed shrilly, with irritation, by a woman’s voice, and I could hear footsteps approaching the gate from the other side. There was a heavy dragging sound of bolts being withdrawn, and then the grind of the gate itself, as it scraped the stone beneath and was opened. A peasant woman stood peering at me. Advancing upon her, I said: “Villa Sangalletti? Signor Ashley?”

The dog, chained inside the lodge where the woman lived, barked more furiously than before. An avenue stretched in front of me, and at the far end I could see the villa itself, shuttered and lifeless. The woman made as though to shut the gate against me, as the dog continued barking and the child cried. Her face was puffed and swollen on one side, as though with toothache, and she kept the fringe of her shawl to it to ease the pain.

I pushed past her through the gate and repeated the words “Signor Ashley.” This time she started, as though for the first time she saw my features, and began to talk rapidly, with a sort of nervous agitation, gesturing with her hands towards the villa. Then she turned swiftly and called over her shoulder, to the lodge. A man, presumably her husband, appeared at the open door, a child on his shoulder. He silenced the dog and came towards me, questioning his wife. She continued her torrent of words to him, and I caught the words “Ashley,” and then “Inglese,” and now it was his turn to stand and stare at me. He looked a better type than the woman, cleaner, with honest eyes, and as he stared at me an expression of deep concern came upon his face and he murmured a few words to his wife, who withdrew with the child to the entrance of the lodge and stood watching us, her shawl still held to her swollen face.

“I speak a little English, signore,” he said. “Can I help you?”

“I have come to see Mr. Ashley,” I said. “Are he and Mrs. Ashley at the villa?”

The concern on his face became greater. He swallowed nervously. “You are Mr. Ashley’s son, signore?” he said.

“No,” I said impatiently, “his cousin. Are they at home?”

He shook his head, distressed. “You have come from England then, signore, and have not heard the news? What can I say? It is very sad, I do not know what to say. Signor Ashley, he died three weeks ago. Very sudden. Very sad. As soon as he is buried, the contessa she shut up the villa, she went away. Nearly two weeks she has been gone. We do not know if she will come back again.”

The dog began to bark again and he turned to quieten it.

I felt all the color drain away from my face. I stood there, stunned. The man watched me, in sympathy, and said something to his wife, who dragged forward a stool, and he placed it beside me.

“Sit, signore,” he said. “I am sorry. So very sorry.”

I shook my head. I could not speak. There was nothing I could say. The man, distressed, spoke roughly to his wife to relieve his feelings. Then he turned again to me. “Signore,” he said, “if you would like to go to the villa I will open it for you. You can see where the signor Ashley died.” I did not care where I went or what I did. My mind was still too numbed to concentrate. He began to walk up the drive, drawing some keys from his pocket, and I walked beside him, my legs heavy suddenly, like lead. The woman and the child followed behind us.

The cypress trees closed in upon us, and the shuttered villa, like a sepulcher, waited at the further end. As we drew closer I saw that it was large, with many windows, all of them blank and closed, and before the entrance the drive swept in a circle, for carriages to turn. Statues, on their pedestals, stood between the shrouded cypresses. The man opened the huge door with his key, and motioned me inside. The woman and the child came too, and the pair of them began to fling open the shutters, letting the daylight into the silent hall. They went before me, passing from room to room, opening the shutters as they did so, believing, in the goodness of their hearts, that by doing this they somehow eased my pain. The rooms all led into each other, large and sparse, with frescoed ceilings and stone floors, and the air was heavy with a medieval musty smell. In some of the rooms the walls were plain, in others tapestried, and in one, darker and more oppressive than the rest, there was a long refectory table flanked with carved monastic chairs, and great wrought iron candlesticks stood on either end.

“The villa Sangalletti very beautiful, signore, very old,” said the man. “The signor Ashley, this is where he would sit, when the sun was too strong for him outside. This was his chair.”

He pointed, almost with reverence, to a tall high-backed chair beside the table. I watched him in a dream. None of this held reality. I could not see Ambrose in this house, or in this room. He could never have walked here with familiar tread, whistling, talking, throwing his stick down beside this chair, this table. Relentlessly, monotonously, the pair went round the room, throwing wide the shutters. Outside was a little court, a sort of cloistered quadrangle, open to the sky but shaded from the sun. In the center of the court stood a fountain, and the bronze statue of a boy, holding a shell in his two hands. Beyond the fountain a laburnum tree grew between the paving stones, making its own canopy of shade. The golden flowers had long since drooped and died, and now the pods lay scattered on the ground, dusty and gray. The man whispered to the woman, and she went to a corner of the quadrangle and turned a handle. Slowly, gently, the water trickled from the shell between the bronze boy’s hands. It fell down and splashed into the pool beneath.

“The signor Ashley,” said the man, “he sat here every day, watching the fountain. He liked to see the water. He sat there, under the tree. It is very beautiful, in spring. The contessa, she would call down to him from her room above.”

He pointed to the stone columns of the balustrade. The woman disappeared within the house, and after a moment or two appeared on the balcony where he had pointed, throwing open the shutters of the room. The water went on dripping from the shell. Never fast, never flowing, just splashing softly into the little pool.

“In summer, always they sit here,” went on the man, “signor Ashley and the contessa. They take their meals, they hear the fountain play. I wait upon them, you understand. I bring out two trays and set them here, on this table.” He pointed to the stone table and two chairs that stood there still. “They take their tisana here after dinner,” he continued, “day after day, always the same.”

He paused, and touched the chair with his hand. A sense of oppression grew upon me. It was cool in the quadrangle, cold almost as a grave, and yet the air was stagnant like the shuttered rooms before he opened them.

I thought of Ambrose as he had been at home. He would walk about the grounds in summer time without a coat, an old straw hat upon his head against the sun. I could see the hat now, tilted forward over his face, and I could see him, his shirtsleeves rolled above the elbow, standing in his boat, pointing at something far away at sea. I remembered how he would reach down with his long arms, and pull me into the boat when I swam alongside.

“Yes,” said the man, as though speaking to himself, “the signor Ashley sat in the chair here, looking at the water.”

The woman came back and, crossing the quadrangle, turned the handle. The dripping ceased. The bronze boy looked down at an empty shell. Everything was silent, still. The child, who had stared with round eyes at the fountain, bent suddenly to the ground and began grubbing among the paving stones, picking up the laburnum pods in his small hands and throwing them into the pool. The woman scolded him, pushing him back against the wall, and seizing a broom that stood there began to sweep the court. Her action broke the stillness, and her husband touched my arm.

“Do you wish to see the room where the signore died?” he said softly.

Possessed with the same sense of unreality, I followed him up the wide stairway to the landing above. We passed through rooms more sparsely furnished than the apartments below, and one, looking northwards over the avenue of cypress trees, was plain and bare like a monk’s cell. A simple iron bedstead was pushed against the wall. There was a pitcher, a ewer, and a screen beside the bed. Tapestries hung over the fireplace, and in a niche in the wall was the small statuette of a kneeling madonna, her hands clasped in prayer.

I looked at the bed. The blankets were folded neatly at the foot. Two pillows, stripped of their linen, were placed on top of one another at the head.

“The end,” said the man in a hushed voice, “was very sudden, you understand. He was weak, yes, very weak from the fever, but even the day before he had dragged himself down to sit by the fountain. No, no, said the contessa, you will become more ill, you must rest, but he is very obstinate, he will not listen to her. And there is coming and going all the time with the doctors. Signor Rainaldi, he is here too, talking, persuading, but never will he listen, he shouts, he is violent, and then, like a little child, falls silent. It was pitiful, to see a strong man so. Then, in the early morning, the contessa she comes quickly to my room, calling for me. I was sleeping in the house, signore. She says, her face white as the wall there, ‘He is dying, Giuseppe, I know it, he is dying,’ and I follow her to his room, and there he is lying in bed, his eyes closed, breathing still, but heavily, you understand, not a true sleep. We send away for the doctor, but the signor Ashley he never wakes again, it was the coma, the sleep of death. I myself lit the candles with the contessa, and when the nuns had been I came to look at him. The violence had all gone, he had a peaceful face. I wish you could have seen it, signore.”

Tears stood in the fellow’s eyes. I looked away from him, back to the empty bed. Somehow I felt nothing. The numbness had passed away, leaving me cold and hard.

“What do you mean,” I said, “by violence?”

“The violence that came with the fever,” said the man. “Twice, three times I had to hold him down in bed, after his attacks. And with the violence came the weakness inside, here.” He pressed his hand against his stomach. “He suffered much with pain. And when the pain went he would be dazed and heavy, his mind wandering. I tell you, signore, it was pitiful. Pitiful, to see so large a man helpless.”

I turned away from that bare room like an empty tomb, and I heard the man close the shutters once again, and close the door. “Why was nothing done?” I said. “The doctors, could they not ease the pain? And Mrs. Ashley, did she just let him die?”

He looked puzzled. “Please, signore?” he said.

“What was this illness, how long did it last?” I asked.

“I have told you, at the end, very sudden,” said the man, “but one, two attacks before then. And all winter the signore not so well, sad somehow, not himself. Very different from the year before. When the signor Ashley first came to the villa, he was happy, gay.”

He threw open more windows as he spoke, and we walked outside onto a great terrace, spaced here and there with statues. At the far end a long stone balustrade. We crossed the terrace and stood by the balustrade, looking down upon a lower garden, clipped and formal, from which the scent of roses came, and summer jasmine, and in the distance was another fountain, and yet another, wide stone steps leading to each garden, the whole laid out, tier upon tier, until at the far end came that same high wall flanked with cypress trees, surrounding the whole property.

We looked westward towards the setting sun, and there was a glow upon the terrace and the hushed gardens; even the statues were held in the one rose-colored light, and it seemed to me, standing there with my hand upon the balustrade, that a strange serenity had come upon the place that was not there before.

The stone was still warm under my hand, and a lizard ran away from a crevice and wriggled down onto the wall below.

“On a still evening,” said the man, standing a pace or so behind me, as though in deference, “it is very beautiful, signore, here in the gardens of the villa Sangalletti. Sometimes the contessa gave orders for the fountains to be played, and when the moon was full she and the signor Ashley used to come out onto the terrace here, after dinner. Last year, before his illness.”

I went on standing there, looking down upon the fountains, and the pools beneath them with the water lilies.

“I think,” said the man slowly, “that the contessa will not come back again. Too sad for her. Too many memories. Signor Rainaldi told us that the villa is to be let, possibly sold.”

His words jerked me back into reality. The spell of the hushed garden had held me for a brief moment only, the scent of roses and the glow of the setting sun, but it was over now.

“Who is Signor Rainaldi?” I asked.

The man turned back with me towards the villa. “The signor Rainaldi he arrange all things for the contessa,” he answered, “matters of business, matters of money, many things. He knows the contessa a long time.” He frowned, and waved his hand at his wife who with the child in her arms was walking on the terrace. The sight offended him, it was not right for them to be there. She disappeared within the villa, and began fastening the shutters.

“I want to see him, Signor Rainaldi,” I said.

“I give you his address,” he answered. “He speak English very well.”

We went back into the villa, and as I passed through the rooms to the hall the shutters were closed, one by one, behind me. I felt in my pockets for some money. I might have been anyone, a casual traveler upon the continent, visiting a villa from curiosity with a view to purchase. Not myself. Not looking for the first and last time on the place where Ambrose had lived and died.

“Thank you for all you did for Mr. Ashley,” I said, putting the coins into the fellow’s hand.

Once again the tears came in his eyes. “I am so sorry, signore,” he said, “so very sorry.”

The last shutters were closed. The woman and the child stood beside us in the hall, and the archway to the empty rooms beyond and to the stairway grew dark again, like the entrance to a vault.

“What happened to his clothes,” I asked, “his belongings, his books, his papers?”

The man looked troubled. He turned to his wife, and they spoke to one another for a moment. Questions and answers passed between them. Her face went blank, she shrugged her shoulders.

“Signore,” said the man, “my wife gave some help to the contessa when she went away. But she says the contessa took everything. All the signor Ashley’s clothes were put in a big trunk, all his books, everything was packed. Nothing left behind.”

I looked into both their eyes. They did not falter. I knew they were speaking the truth. “And you have no idea,” I asked, “where Mrs. Ashley went?”

The man shook his head. “She has left Florence, that is all we know,” he said. “The day after the funeral, the contessa went away.”

He opened the heavy front door and I stepped outside.

“Where is he buried?” I asked, impersonal, a stranger.

“In Florence, signore, in the new Protestant cemetery. Many English buried there. Signor Ashley, he is not alone.”

It was as if he wished to reassure me that Ambrose would have company, and that in the dark world beyond the grave his own countrymen would bring him consolation.

For the first time I could not bear to meet the fellow’s eyes. They were like a dog’s eyes, honest and devoted.

I turned away, and as I did so I heard the woman exclaim suddenly to her husband, and before he had time to shut the door she had darted back into the villa once again, and opened a great oak chest that was standing against the wall. She came back carrying something in her hand which she gave to her husband, and he in turn to me. His puckered face relaxed, broadening to relief.

“The contessa,” he said, “one thing she has forgotten. Take it with you, signore, it is for you alone.”

It was Ambrose’s hat, wide-brimmed and bent. The hat that he used to wear at home against the sun. It would never fit any other man, it was too big. I could feel their anxious eyes upon me, waiting for me to say something, as I turned the hat over and over in my hands.