My Cousin Rachel Chapter 5

I remember nothing of the return drive to Florence except that the sun had set and it grew quickly dark. There was no twilight as we had at home. From the ditches by the wayside insects, crickets maybe, set up their monotonous chanting, and now and again barefooted peasants passed us, carrying baskets on their backs.

When we came into the city we lost the cooler cleaner air of the surrounding hills, and it was hot once more. Not like the daytime, burning and dusty white, but the flat stale heat of evening, buried too many hours in the walls and roofs of houses. The lassitude of noon, and the activity of those hours between siesta and sunset, had given place to a deeper animation, more alive, more tense. The men and women who thronged the piazzas and the narrow streets strolled with another purpose, as if all day they had lain hidden, sleeping, in their silent houses, and now came out like cats to prowl the town. The market-stalls were lit by flares and candles and besieged by customers, delving with questing hands among the proffered goods. Shawled women pressed one another, chattering, scolding, and vendors shouted their wares to make their voices heard. The clanging bells began again, and it seemed to me this time that their clamor was more personal. The doors of the churches were pushed open so that I could see the candlelight within, and the groups of people broke up a little, scattered, and pressed inside at the summons of the bells.

I paid off my driver in the piazza by the cathedral, and the sound of that great bell, compelling, insistent, rang like a challenge in the still and vapid air. Scarcely aware of what I did, I passed into the cathedral with the people, and straining my eyes into the gloom stood for a brief moment by a column. An old lame peasant stood beside me, leaning on a crutch. He turned one sightless eye towards the altar, his lips moving, his hands trembling, while about me and before me knelt women, shawled and secret, intoning with shrill voices after the priest, their gnarled hands busy with their beads.

I still held Ambrose’s hat in my left hand, and as I stood there in the great cathedral, dwarfed into insignificance, a stranger in that city of cold beauty and spilled blood, seeing the priest’s obeisance to the altar, hearing his lips intone words, centuries old and solemn, that I could not understand, I realized suddenly and sharply the full measure of my loss. Ambrose was dead. I would never see him again. He was gone from me forever. Never more that smile, that chuckle, those hands upon my shoulder. Never more his strength, his understanding. Never more that known figure, honored and loved, hunched in his library chair, or standing, leaning on his stick, looking down towards the sea. I thought of the bare room where he had died, in the villa Sangalletti, and of the madonna in her niche; and something told me that when he went he was not part of that room, or of that house, or of this country, but that his spirit went back where it belonged, to be among his own hills and his own woods, in the garden that he loved, within sound of the sea.

I turned and went out of the cathedral and onto the piazza, and looking up at that great dome and the tower beside me, remote and slender, carved against the sky, I remembered for the first time, with the sudden recollection that comes after great shock and stress, that I had not eaten for the day. I turned my thoughts away from the dead, back to the living; and having found a place to eat and drink, close to the cathedral, I went, with hunger satisfied, in search of Signor Rainaldi. The good servant at the villa had written down his address for me, and after one or two inquiries, pointing at the piece of paper and struggling lamely with the pronunciation, I found his house, over the bridge from my hostelry, on the left bank of the Arno. This side of the river was darker and more silent than in the heart of Florence. Few people wandered in the streets. Doors were closed and windows shuttered. Even my footsteps sounded hollow on the cobbled stones.

I came at last to the house, and rang the bell. A servant opened the door within a moment, and without inquiring my name led me upstairs and along a passage, and knocking upon a door showed me into a room. I stood blinking at the sudden light, and saw a man seated in a chair beside a table, looking through a pile of papers. He rose as I came into the room, and stared at me. He was a little less than my own height, and of some forty years perhaps, with a pale, almost colorless face, and lean aquiline features. There was something proud, disdainful about his cast of countenance, like that of someone who would have small mercy for fools, or for his enemies; but I think I noticed most his eyes, dark and deep-set, which at first sight of me startled into a flash of recognition that in one second vanished.

“Signor Rainaldi?” I said. “My name is Ashley. Philip Ashley.”

“Yes,” he said, “will you sit down?”

His voice had a cold hard quality, and his Italian accent was not strongly marked. He pushed forward a chair for me.

“You are surprised to see me, no doubt?” I said, watching him carefully. “You were not aware I was in Florence?”

“No,” he answered. “No, I was not aware that you were here.”

The words were guarded, but it may have been that his command of the English language was small, so that he spoke carefully.

“You know who I am?” I asked.

“I think I am clear as to the exact relationship,” he said. “You are cousin, are you not, or nephew to the late Ambrose Ashley?”

“Cousin,” I said, “and heir.”

He took up a pen between his fingers, and tapped with it on the table, as if he played for time, or for distraction.

“I have been to the villa Sangalletti,” I said, “I have seen the room where he died. The servant Giuseppe was very helpful. He gave me all the details, but referred me to you.”

Was it my fancy, or did a veiled look come over those dark eyes?

“How long have you been in Florence?” he asked.

“A few hours. Since afternoon.”

“You have only arrived today? Then your cousin Rachel has not seen you.” The hand that held the pen relaxed.

“No,” I said, “the servant at the villa gave me to understand that she had left Florence the day after the funeral.”

“She left the villa Sangalletti,” he said, “she did not leave Florence.”

“Is she still here, in the city?”

“No,” he said, “no, she has now gone away. She wishes me to let the villa. Sell it possibly.”

His manner was oddly stiff and unbending, as if any information that he gave me must be considered first, and sorted in his mind.

“Do you know where she is now?” I asked.

“I am afraid not,” he said. “She left very suddenly, she had made no plans. She told me she would write, when she had come to some decision about the future.”

“She is with friends perhaps?” I ventured.

“Perhaps,” he said. “I do not think so.”

I had the feeling that only today, or even yesterday, she had been with him in this room, that he knew much more than he admitted.

“You will understand, Signor Rainaldi,” I said, “that this sudden hearing of my cousin’s death, from the lips of servants, was a very great shock to me. The whole thing has been like a nightmare. What happened? Why was I not informed that he was ill?”

He watched me carefully, he did not take his eyes from my face. “Your cousin’s death was sudden too,” he said, “it was a great shock to us all. He had been ill, yes, but not, as we thought, dangerously so. The usual fever that attacks many foreigners here in the summer had brought about a certain weakness, and he complained too of a violent headache. The contessa—I should say Mrs. Ashley—was much concerned, but he was not an easy patient. He took an instant dislike to our doctors, for what reason it was hard to discover. Every day Mrs. Ashley hoped for some improvement, and certainly she had no desire to make you and his friends in England anxious.”

“But we were anxious,” I said, “that was why I came to Florence. I received these letters from him.”

It was a bold move perhaps, and reckless, but I did not care. I handed across the table the two last letters Ambrose had written me. He read them carefully. His expression did not change. Then he passed them back to me.

“Yes,” he said, his voice quite calm, without surprise, “Mrs. Ashley feared he might have written something of the sort. It was not until those last weeks, when he became so secretive and strange, that the doctors feared the worst, and warned her.”

“Warned her?” I said. “Warned her of what?”

“That there might be something pressing on his brain,” he answered, “a tumor, or growth, of rapidly increasing size, which would account for his condition.”

A lost feeling came over me. A tumor? Then my godfather’s surmise was right after all. First uncle Philip, and then Ambrose. And yet… Why did this Italian watch my eyes?

“Did the doctors say that it was a tumor that killed him?”

“Unquestionably,” he answered. “That, and a certain flare-up of after-fever weakness. There were two doctors present. My own, and another. I can send for them, and you can ask any question you care to put. One speaks a little English.”

“No,” I said slowly, “no, it is not necessary.”

He opened a drawer and pulled out a piece of paper.

“I have here a copy of the certificate of death,” he said, “signed by them both. Read it. One copy has already been posted to you in Cornwall, and a second to the trustee of your cousin’s will, Mr. Nicholas Kendall, near Lostwithiel, in Cornwall.”

I looked down at the certificate. I did not bother to read it.

“How did you know,” I asked, “that Nicholas Kendall is trustee to my cousin’s will?”

“Because your cousin Ambrose had a copy of the will with him,” replied Signor Rainaldi. “I read it many times.”

“You read my cousin’s will?” I asked, incredulous.

“Naturally,” he replied. “As trustee myself to the contessa, to Mrs. Ashley, it was my business to see her husband’s will. There is nothing strange about it. Your cousin showed me the will himself, soon after they were married. I have a copy of it, in fact. But it is not my business to show it to you. It is the business of your guardian, Mr. Kendall. No doubt he will do so, on your return home.”

He knew my godfather was my guardian also, which was more than I did. Unless he spoke in error. Surely no man past twenty-one possessed a guardian, and I was twenty-four? This did not matter, though. What mattered was Ambrose and his illness, Ambrose and his death.

“These two letters,” I said stubbornly, “are not the letters of a sick man, of a person ill. They are the letters of a man who has enemies, who is surrounded by people he cannot trust.”

Signor Rainaldi watched me steadily.

“They are the letters of a man who was sick in mind, Mr. Ashley,” he answered me. “Forgive my bluntness, but I saw him those last weeks, and you did not. The experience was not a pleasant one for any of us, least of all for his wife. You see what he says in the first letter there, that she did not leave him. I can vouchsafe for that. She did not leave him night or day. Another woman would have had nuns to tend him. She nursed him alone, she spared herself nothing.”

“Yet it did not help him,” I said. “Look at the letters, and this last line, ‘She has done for me at last, Rachel my torment…’ What do you make of that, Signor Rainaldi?”

I suppose I had raised my voice in my excitement. He got up from his chair, and pulled a bell. When his servant appeared he gave an order, and the man returned with a glass, and some wine and water. He poured some out for me, but I did not want it.

“Well?” I said.

He did not go back to his seat. He went over to the side of the room where books lined the wall and took down a volume.

“Are you any sort of a student of medical history, Mr. Ashley?” he asked.

“No,” I said.

“You will find it here,” he said, “the sort of information you are seeking, or you can question those doctors, whose address I am only too willing to give you. There is a particular affliction of the brain, present above all when there is a growth, or tumor, when the sufferer becomes troubled by delusions. He fancies, for instance, that he is being watched. That the person nearest to him, such as a wife, has either turned against him, or is unfaithful, or seeks to take his money. No amount of love or persuasion can allay this suspicion, once it takes hold. If you don’t believe me, or the doctors here, ask your own countrymen, or read this book.”

How plausible he was, how cold, how confident. I thought of Ambrose lying on that iron bedstead in the villa Sangalletti, tortured, bewildered, with this man observing him, analyzing his symptoms one by one, watching perhaps from over that threefold screen. Whether he was right or wrong I did not know. All I knew was that I hated Rainaldi.

“Why didn’t she send for me?” I asked. “If Ambrose had lost faith in her, why not send for me? I knew him best.”

Rainaldi closed the book with a snap, and replaced it on the shelf.

“You are very young, are you not, Mr. Ashley?” he said.

I stared at him. I did not know what he meant.

“What do you mean by that?” I asked.

“A woman of feeling does not easily give way,” he said. “You may call it pride, or tenacity, call it what you will. In spite of all evidence to the contrary, their emotions are more primitive than ours. They hold to the thing they want, and never surrender. We have our wars and battles, Mr. Ashley. But women can fight too.”

He looked at me, with his cold deep-set eyes, and I knew I had no more to say to him.

“If I had been here,” I said, “he would not have died.”

I rose from my chair and went towards the door. Once again Rainaldi pulled the bell, and the servant came to show me out.

“I have written,” he said, “to your guardian, Mr. Kendall. I have explained to him very fully, in great detail, everything that has happened. Is there anything more I can do for you? Will you be staying long in Florence?”

“No,” I said, “why should I stay? There is nothing to keep me.”

“If you wish to see the grave,” he said, “I will give you a note to the guardian, in the Protestant cemetery. The site is quite simple and plain. No stone as yet, of course. That will be erected presently.”

He turned to the table, and scribbled a note which he gave me.

“What will be written on the stone?” I said.

He paused a moment, as though reflecting, while the servant waiting by the open door handed me Ambrose’s hat.

“I believe,” he said, “that my instructions were to put ‘In Memory of Ambrose Ashley, beloved husband of Rachel Coryn Ashley,’ and then of course the date.”

I knew then that I did not want to go to the cemetery or visit the grave. That I had no wish to see the place where they had buried him. They could put up the stone, and later take flowers there if they wished, but Ambrose would never know, and never care. He would be with me in that west country, under his own soil, in his own land.

“When Mrs. Ashley returns,” I said slowly, “tell her that I came to Florence. That I went to the villa Sangalletti, and that I saw where Ambrose died. You can tell her too about the letters Ambrose wrote to me.”

He held out his hand to me, cold and hard like himself, and still he watched me with those veiled, deep-set eyes.

“Your cousin Rachel is a woman of impulse,” he said. “When she left Florence she took all her possessions with her. I very much fear that she will never return.”

I left the house and went out into the dark street. It was almost as if his eyes still followed me from behind his shuttered windows.

I walked back along the cobbled streets and crossed the bridge, and before turning into the hostelry to seek what sleep I could before the morning I went and stood once more beside the Arno.

The city slept. I was the only loiterer. Even the solemn bells were silent, and the only sound was the river, sucking its way under the bridge. It ran more swiftly now, it seemed, than in the day, as though the water had been pent up and idle during the long hours of heat and sun and now, because of night, because of silence, found release.

I stared down at the river, watching it surge and flow and lose itself in the darkness, and by the single flickering lantern light upon the bridge I saw the bubbles forming, frothy brown. Then borne upon the current, stiff and slowly turning, with its four legs in the air, came the body of a dog. It passed under the bridge and went its way.

I made a vow there, to myself, beside the Arno.

I swore that, whatever it had cost Ambrose in pain and suffering before he died, I would return it, in full measure, upon the woman who had caused it. Because I did not believe Rainaldi’s story. I believed in the truth of those two letters that I held in my right hand. The last Ambrose had ever written to me.

Someday, somehow, I would repay my cousin Rachel.