My Cousin Rachel Chapter 6

I arrived home the first week in September. The news had preceded me—the Italian had not lied when he told me he had written to Nick Kendall. My godfather had broken the news to the servants and to the tenants on the estate. Wellington was waiting for me at Bodmin with the carriage. The horses were decked in crepe, as were Wellington and the groom, their faces long and solemn.

My relief at being back in my own country was so great that for the moment grief was dormant, or possibly that long homeward trek across Europe had dulled all feeling; but I remember my first instinct was to smile at sight of Wellington and the boy, to pat the horses, to inquire if all was well. It was almost as though I were a lad again, returned from school. The old coachman’s manner was stiff, however, with a new formality, and the young groom opened the carriage door to me with deference. “A sad homecoming, Mr. Philip,” said Wellington, and when I asked after Seecombe and the household he shook his head and told me that they and all the tenants were sorely grieved. The whole neighborhood, he said, had talked of nothing else since the news became known. The church had been draped in black all Sunday, likewise the chapel on the estate, but the greatest blow of all, Wellington said, was when Mr. Kendall told them that the master had been buried in Italy and would not be brought home to lie in the vault among his family.

“It doesn’t seem right to any of us, Mr. Philip,” he said, “and we don’t think Mr. Ashley would have liked it either.”

There was nothing I could say in answer. I got into the carriage and let them drive me home.

It was strange how the emotion and the fatigue of the past weeks vanished at sight of the house. All sense of strain left me, and in spite of the long hours on the road I felt rested and at peace. It was afternoon, and the sun shone on the windows of the west wing, and on the gray walls, as the carriage passed through the second gate up the slope to the house. The dogs were there, waiting to greet me, and poor Seecombe, wearing a crepe band on his arm like the rest of the servants, broke down when I wrung him by the hand.

“It’s been so long, Mr. Philip,” he said, “so very long. And how were we to know that you might not take the fever too, like Mr. Ashley?”

He waited upon me while I dined, solicitous, anxious for my welfare, and I was thankful that he did not press me with questions about my journey or about his master’s illness and death, but was full of the effect upon himself and the household; how the bells had tolled for a whole day, how the vicar had spoken, how wreaths had been brought in offering. And all his words were punctuated with a new formality of address. I was “Mr.” Philip. No longer “Master” Philip. I had noticed the same with the coachman and the groom. It was unexpected, yet strangely warming to the heart.

When I had dined I went up to my room and looked about me, and then down into the library, and so out into the grounds, and I was filled with a queer feeling of happiness that I had not thought ever to possess with Ambrose dead; for when I left Florence I had reached the lowest ebb of loneliness, and hoped for nothing. Across Italy and France I was possessed with images which I could not drive away. I saw Ambrose sitting in that shaded court of the villa Sangalletti, beside the laburnum tree, watching the dripping fountain. I saw him in that bare monk’s cell above, propped on two pillows, struggling for breath. And always within earshot, always within sight, was the shadowy hated figure of that woman I had never seen. She had so many faces, so many guises, and that name contessa, used by the servant Giuseppe and by Rainaldi too, in preference for Mrs. Ashley, gave to her a kind of aura she had never had with me at first, when I had seen her as another Mrs. Pascoe.

Since my journey to the villa she had become a monster, larger than life itself. Her eyes were black as sloes, her features aquiline like Rainaldi’s, and she moved about those musty villa rooms sinuous and silent, like a snake. I saw her, when there was no longer breath left in his body, packing his clothes in trunks, reaching for his books, his last possessions, and then creeping away, thin-lipped, to Rome perhaps, to Naples, or even lying concealed in that house beside the Arno, smiling, behind the shutters. These images remained with me until I crossed the sea and came to Dover. And now, now that I had returned home, they vanished as nightmares do at break of day. My bitterness went too. Ambrose was with me once again and he was not tortured, he no longer suffered. He had never been to Florence or to Italy at all. It was as though he had died here, in his own home, and lay buried with his father and his mother and my own parents, and my grief was now something I could overcome; sorrow was with me still, but not tragedy. I too was back where I belonged, and the smell of home was all about me.

I went out across the fields, and the men were harvesting. The shocks of corn were being lifted into the wagons. They ceased work at the sight of me, and I went and spoke to all of them. Old Billy Rowe, who had been tenant of the Barton ever since I could remember and had never called me anything but Master Philip, touched his forehead when I came up to him, and his wife and daughter, helping with the rest of the men, dropped me a curtsey. “We’ve missed you, sir,” he said, “it hasn’t seemed right to start carrying the corn without you. We’re glad you’re home.” A year ago I would have rolled up my sleeves like the rest of the hinds, and seized a fork, but something stayed me now, a realization that they would not think it fit.

“I’m glad to be home,” I said. “Mr. Ashley’s death has been a great sadness to me, and to you too, but now we all have to carry on as he would have wished us to do.”

“Yes, sir,” he said, and touched his forelock once again.

I stayed a few moments talking, then called to the dogs and went my way. He waited until I reached the hedge before telling the men to resume their work. When I came to the pony paddock, midway between the house and the sloping fields, I paused and looked back over the sunken fence. The wagons were silhouetted on the further hill, and the waiting horses and the moving figures black dots on the skyline. The shocks of corn were golden in the last rays of the sun. The sea was very blue, almost purple where it covered the rocks, and had that deep full look about it that always comes with the flood tide. The fishing fleet had put out, and were standing eastward to catch the shore breeze. Back at home the house was in shadow now, only the weather vane on the top of the clock tower catching a loose shaft of light. I walked slowly across the grass to the open door.

The windows were still unshuttered, for Seecombe had not yet sent the servants to close them down. There was something welcome in the sight of those raised sashes, with the curtains softly moving, and the thought of all the rooms behind the windows, known to me and loved. The smoke rose from the chimneys, tall and straight. Old Don, the retriever, too ancient and stiff to walk with me and the younger dogs, scratched on the gravel under the library windows, and then turning his head towards me slowly wagged his tail as I drew near.

It came upon me strongly and with force, and for the first time since I had learned of Ambrose’s death, that everything I now saw and looked upon belonged to me. I need never share it with anyone living. Those walls and windows, that roof, the bell that struck seven as I approached, the whole living entity of the house was mine, and mine alone. The grass beneath my feet, the trees surrounding me, the hills behind me, the meadows, the woods, even the men and women farming the land yonder, were all part of my inheritance; they all belonged.

I went indoors and stood in the library, my back to the open fireplace, my hands in my pockets. The dogs came in as was their custom, and lay down at my feet. Seecombe came to ask me if there were any orders for Wellington, for the morning. Did I want the horses and the carriage, or should he saddle Gypsy for me? No, I told him, I would give no orders tonight. I would see Wellington myself after breakfast. I wished to be called at my usual time. He answered, “Yes, sir,” and left the room. Master Philip had gone forever. Mr. Ashley had come home. It was a strange feeling. In a sense it made me humble, and at the same time oddly proud. I was aware of a sort of confidence and of a strength that I had not known before, and a new elation. It seemed to me that I felt as a soldier might feel on being given command of a battalion; this sense of ownership, of pride, and of possession too, came to me, as it might do to a senior major, after having deputized for many months and years in second place. But, unlike a soldier, I would never have to give up my command. It was mine for life. I believe that when I had this realization, standing there before the library fire, I knew a moment of happiness that I have never had in life, before or since. Like all such moments it came swiftly, and as swiftly passed again. Some sound of day by day broke the spell: perhaps a dog stirred, an ember fell from the fire, or a servant moved overhead as he went to close the windows—I don’t remember what it was. All I remember is the feeling of confidence which I had that night, as though something long sleeping had stirred inside me and now come to life. I went early to bed, and slept without once dreaming.

My godfather, Nick Kendall, came over the following day, bringing Louise with him. As there were no close relatives to summon, and only bequests to Seecombe and the other servants, with the customary donations to the poor in the parish, the widows, and the orphans, and the whole of his estate and property was left to me, Nick Kendall read the will alone to me, in the library. Louise took herself off for a walk in the grounds. In spite of the legal language, the business seemed simple and straightforward. Except for one thing. The Italian Rainaldi had been right. Nick Kendall was appointed my guardian, because the estate did not become virtually mine until I was twenty-five.

“It was a belief of Ambrose’s,” said my godfather, taking off his spectacles as he handed me the document to read for myself, “that no young man knows his own mind until he turns twenty-five. You might have grown up with a weakness for drink or gambling or women, and this twenty-five-year clause made a safeguard. I helped him to draw the will when you were still at Harrow, and though we both knew that none of these tendencies had developed yet Ambrose preferred to keep the clause. ‘It can’t hurt Philip,’ he always said, ‘and will teach him caution.’ Well, there we are, and there’s nothing to be done about it. In point of fact it won’t affect you, except that you will have to call upon me for money, as you always have done, for the estate accounts and for your personal use, for a further seven months. Your birthday is in April, isn’t it?”

“You should know,” I said, “you were my sponsor.”

“A funny little worm you were too,” he said with a smile, “staring with puzzled eyes at the parson. Ambrose was just down from Oxford. He pinched your nose to make you cry, shocking his aunt, your mother. Afterwards he challenged your poor father to a pulling race, and they rowed from the castle to Lostwithiel, getting drenched to the skin the pair of them. Ever felt the lack of parents, Philip? It’s been hard on you, I often think, without your mother.”

“I don’t know,” I said, “I’ve never thought about it much. I never wanted anyone but Ambrose.”

“It was wrong, all the same,” he said. “I used to tell Ambrose so, but he never listened to me. There should have been someone in the house, a housekeeper, a distant relative, anyone. You have grown up ignorant of women, and if you ever marry it will be hard on your wife. I was saying so to Louise at breakfast.”

He broke off then, looking—if my godfather could look such a thing—a little uncomfortable, as if he said more than he meant.

“That’s all right,” I said, “my wife can take care of all the difficulties when the time comes. If it ever does come, which is unlikely. I think I am too much like Ambrose, and I know now what marriage must have done to him.”

My godfather was silent. Then I told him of my visit to the villa and of my meeting with Rainaldi, and he showed me in turn the letter that the Italian had written him. It was much as I expected, giving in cold stilted words his story of Ambrose’s illness and death, of his own personal regret, and of the shock and grief to the widow, who was, according to Rainaldi, inconsolable.

“So inconsolable,” I said to my godfather, “that the day after the funeral she goes off, like a thief, taking all Ambrose’s possessions with her, except his old hat, which she forgot. Because, no doubt, it was torn and had no value.”

My godfather coughed. His bushy eyebrows knitted.

“Surely,” he said, “you don’t begrudge her the books and clothes? Hang it all, Philip, it’s all she has.”

“How do you mean,” I asked, “it’s all she has?”

“Well, I’ve read the will to you,” he answered, “and there it is before you. It’s the same will that I drew up ten years ago. No codicil, you know, upon his marriage. There is no provision in it for a wife. All this past year I rather expected word from him, at some time or other, about a settlement at least. It’s usual. But I suppose his absence abroad made him neglectful of such a necessity, and he kept hoping to return. Then his illness put a stop to any business. I am a little surprised that this Italian, Signor Rainaldi, whom you seem so much to dislike, makes no mention of any sort of claim on the part of Mrs. Ashley. It shows great delicacy on his part.”

“Claim?” I said. “Good God, you talk of a claim when we know perfectly well she drove him to his death?”

“We don’t know anything of the sort,” returned my godfather, “and if that is the way you are going to talk about your cousin’s widow I don’t care to listen.” He got up and began to put his papers together.

“So you believe the story of the tumor?” I said.

“Naturally I believe it,” he replied. “Here is the letter from this Italian, Rainaldi, and the death certificate, signed by two doctors. I remember your uncle Philip’s death, which you do not. The symptoms were very similar. It is exactly what I feared, when the letter came from Ambrose and you left for Florence. The fact that you arrived too late to be of any assistance is one of those calamities that nobody can help. It is possible, now I think of it, that it was not a calamity after all, but a mercy. You would not have wished to see him suffer.”

I could have hit him, the old fool, for being so obstinate, so blind.

“You never saw the second letter,” I said, “the note that came the morning I went away. Look at this.”

I had it still. I kept it always in my breast pocket. I gave it to him. He put on his spectacles again, and read it.

“I’m sorry, Philip,” he said, “but even that poor heartbreak of a scribble cannot alter my opinion. You must face facts. You loved Ambrose, so did I. When he died I lost my greatest friend. I am as distressed as you when I think of his mental suffering, perhaps even more so, because I have seen it in another. Your trouble is that you will not reconcile yourself to the fact that the man we knew and admired and loved was not his true self before he died. He was mentally and physically sick, and not responsible for what he wrote or said.”

“I don’t believe it,” I said. “I can’t believe it.”

“You mean you won’t believe it,” said my godfather, “in which case there is nothing more to be said. But for Ambrose’s sake, and for the sake of everybody who knew and loved him, here on the estate and in the county, I must ask you not to spread your views to others. It would cause distress and pain to all of them, and if such a whisper ever got to his widow, wherever she may be, you would cut a miserable figure in her eyes, and she would be well within her rights to bring a case against you for slander. If I were her man of business, as that Italian seems to be, I would not hesitate to do so.”

I had never heard my godfather speak with such force. He was right in saying there was no more to be said on the subject. I had learned my lesson. I would not broach it again.

“Shall we call Louise?” I said pointedly. “I think she has been wandering about the gardens long enough. You had both better stay and dine with me.”

My godfather was silent during dinner. I could tell he was still shocked by what I had said to him. Louise questioned me about my travels, what had I thought of Paris, the French countryside, the Alps and Florence itself, and my very inadequate replies filled up the gaps in conversation. She was quick-witted, though, and saw something was wrong. And after dinner, when my godfather summoned Seecombe and the servants to tell them of the various bequests, I went and sat with her in the drawing room.

“My godfather is displeased with me,” I said, and told her the story. She watched me in that rather critical inquiring way she always had, to which I was well accustomed, her head a little on one side, her chin lifted. “You know,” she said, when I had finished, “I think you are probably right. I dare say poor Mr. Ashley and his wife were not happy, and he was too proud to write and tell you so before he fell ill, and then perhaps they had a quarrel, and everything happened at once, and so he wrote you those letters. What did those servants say about her? Was she young, was she old?”

“I never asked,” I said. “I don’t see that it matters. The only thing that matters is that he did not trust her when he died.”

She nodded. “That was terrible,” she agreed, “he must have felt so lonely.” My heart warmed to Louise. Perhaps it was because she was young, my own age, that she seemed to have so much more perception than her father. He was getting old, I thought to myself, losing his judgment. “You should have asked that Italian, Rainaldi, what she looked like,” said Louise. “I should have done. It would have been my first question. And what had happened to the Count, her first husband. Didn’t you tell me once he had been killed in a duel? You see, that speaks badly for her, too. She probably had several lovers.”

This aspect of my cousin Rachel had not occurred to me. I only saw her as malevolent, like a spider. In spite of my hatred, I could not help smiling. “How like a girl,” I said to Louise, “to picture lovers. Stilettos in a shadowed doorway. Secret staircases. I ought to have taken you to Florence with me. You would have learned much more than I did.”

She flushed deeply when I said this, and I thought how odd girls were; even Louise, whom I had known my whole life, failed to understand a joke. “At any rate,” I said, “whether that woman had a hundred lovers or not doesn’t concern me. She can lie low in Rome or Naples or wherever she is for the present. But one day I shall hunt her out, and she’ll be sorry for it.”

At that moment my godfather came to find us, and I said no more. He seemed in a better humor. No doubt Seecombe and Wellington and the others had been grateful for their little bequests and he, in benign fashion, felt himself in part the author of them.

“Ride over and see me soon,” I told Louise, as I helped her into the dogcart beside her father. “You’re good for me. I like your company.” And she flushed again, silly girl, glancing up at her father to see how he would take it, as though we had not ridden backwards and forwards visiting one another before, times without number. Perhaps she also was impressed by my new status, and before I knew where I was I would become Mr. Ashley to her too, instead of Philip. I went back into the house, smiling at the idea of Louise Kendall, whose hair I used to pull only a few years back, now looking upon me with respect, and the next instant I forgot her, and my godfather as well, for on coming home there was much to do after two months’ absence.

I did not think to see my godfather again for at least a fortnight, what with the harvest and other things upon my hands; but scarcely a week had passed before his groom rode over one morning, soon after midday, with a verbal message from his master, asking me to go and see him; he was unable to come himself, he was confined to the house with a slight chill, but he had news for me.

I did not think the matter urgent—we carried the last of the corn that day—and the following afternoon I rode to see him.

I found him in his study, alone. Louise was absent somewhere. He had a curious look upon his face, baffled, ill at ease. I could see he was disturbed.

“Well,” he said, “now something has got to be done, and you have to decide exactly what, and when. She has arrived by boat in Plymouth.”

“Who has arrived?” I asked. But I think I knew.

He showed me a piece of paper in his hand.

“I have a letter here,” he said, “from your cousin Rachel.”