My Cousin Rachel Chapter 7

He gave me the letter. I looked at the handwriting on the folded paper. I don’t know what I thought to see. Something bold, perhaps, with loops and flourishes; or its reverse, darkly scrawled and mean. This was just handwriting, much like any other, except that the ends of the words tailed off in little dashes, making the words themselves not altogether easy to decipher.

“She does not appear to know that we have heard the news,” said my godfather. “She must have left Florence before Signor Rainaldi wrote his letter. Well, see what you make of it. I will give you my opinion afterwards.”

I opened up the letter. It was dated from a hostelry in Plymouth, on the thirteenth of September.


“When Ambrose spoke of you, as he so often did, I little thought my first communication with you would be fraught with so much sadness. I arrived in Plymouth, from Genoa, this morning, in a state of great distress, and alas alone.

“My dear one died in Florence on the 20th of July, after a short illness but violent in its attack. Everything was done that could be done, but the best doctors I could summon were not able to save him. There was a recurrence of some fever that had seized him earlier in the spring, but the last was due to pressure on the brain which the doctors think had lain dormant for some months, then rapidly increased its hold upon him. He lies in the Protestant cemetery in Florence, in a site chosen by myself, quiet, and a little apart from the other English graves, with trees surrounding it, which is what he would have wished. Of my personal sorrow and great emptiness I will say nothing; you do not know me, and I have no desire to inflict my grief upon you.

“My first thought has been for Philip, whom Ambrose loved so dearly, and whose grief will be equal to my own. My good friend and counselor, Signor Rainaldi of Florence, assured me that he would write to you and break the news, so that you in turn could tell Philip, but I have little faith in those mails from Italy to England, and was fearful either that the news should come to you by hearsay, through a stranger, or that it would not come at all. Hence my arrival in this country. I have brought with me all Ambrose’s possessions; his books, his clothes, everything that Philip would wish to have and keep, which now, by right, belong to him. If you will tell me what to do with them, how to send them, and whether or not I should write to Philip myself, I shall be deeply grateful.

“I left Florence very suddenly, on impulse and without regret. I could not bear to stay with Ambrose gone. As to further plans, I have none. After so great a shock time for reflection is, I think, most necessary. I had hoped to be in England before this, but was held up at Genoa, for the ship that brought me was not ready to sail. I believe I still have members of my own family, the Coryns, scattered about Cornwall, but knowing none of them I have no wish to intrude upon them. I would much prefer to be alone. Possibly, after I have rested here a little, I may travel up to London, and then make further plans.

“I will await instruction from you what to do with my husband’s possessions.

“Most sincerely yours,


I read the letter once, twice, perhaps three times, then gave it back to my godfather. He waited for me to speak. I did not say a word.

“You see,” he said at length, “that after all she has kept nothing. Not so much as one book, or a pair of gloves. They are all for you.”

I did not answer.

“She doesn’t even ask to see the house,” he went on, “the house that would have been her home had Ambrose lived. That voyage she has just made, you realize, of course, that if things had been otherwise they would have made it together? This would have been her homecoming. What a difference, eh? All the people on the estate to welcome her, the servants agog with excitement, the neighbors calling—instead of which, a lonely hostelry in Plymouth. She may be pleasant or unpleasant—how can I tell, I have not met her. But the point is, she asks nothing, she demands nothing. Yet she is Mrs. Ashley. I’m sorry, Philip. I know your views, and you won’t be shaken. But as Ambrose’s friend, as his trustee, I cannot sit here and do nothing when his widow arrives alone and friendless in this country. We have a guest room in this house. She is welcome to it until her plans are formed.”

I went and stood by the window. Louise was not absent after all. She had a basket on her arm, and was snipping off the heads of the dead flowers in the border. She raised her head and saw me, waving her hand. I wondered if my godfather had read the letter to her.

“Well, Philip?” he said. “You can write to her or not, just as you wish. I don’t suppose you want to see her, and if she accepts my invitation I shall not ask you over whilst she is here. But some sort of message at least is due from you, an acknowledgment of the things she has brought back for you. I can put that in a postscript when I write.”

I turned away from the window, and looked back at him.

“Why should you imagine I don’t wish to see her?” I asked. “I do wish to see her, very much. If she is a woman of impulse, which she appears to be from that letter—I recollect Rainaldi telling me the same thing—then I can also act on impulse, which I propose to do. It was impulse that took me to Florence in the first place, wasn’t it?”

“Well?” asked my godfather, his brows knitting, staring at me suspiciously.

“When you write to Plymouth,” I said, “say that Philip Ashley has already heard the news of Ambrose’s death. That he went to Florence on receipt of two letters, went to the villa Sangalletti, saw her servants, saw her friend and adviser, Signor Rainaldi, and is now returned. Say that he is a plain man, and lives in a plain fashion. That he has no fine manners, no conversation, and is little used to the society of women, or indeed of anyone. If, however, she wishes to see him and her late husband’s home—Philip Ashley’s house is at the disposal of his cousin Rachel, when she cares to visit it.” And I placed my hand upon my heart, and bowed.

“I never thought,” said my godfather slowly, “to see you grow so hard. What has happened to you?”

“Nothing has happened to me,” I said, “save that, like a young warhorse, I smell blood. Have you forgotten my father was a soldier?”

Then I went out into the garden to find Louise. Her concern at the news was greater than my own. I took her hand and dragged her to the summerhouse beside the lawn. We sat there together, like conspirators.

“Your house isn’t fit to receive anyone,” she said at once, “let alone a woman like the contessa—like Mrs. Ashley. You see, I can’t help calling her contessa too, it comes more naturally. Why, Philip, there hasn’t been a woman staying there for twenty years. What room will you put her in? And think of the dust! Not only upstairs but in the drawing room too. I noticed it last week.”

“None of that matters,” I said impatiently. “She can dust the place herself, if she minds so much. The worse she finds it, the better pleased I shall be. Let her know at last the happy carefree life we led, Ambrose and I. Unlike that villa…”

“Oh, but you’re wrong,” exclaimed Louise. “You don’t want to seem a boor, an ignoramus, like one of the hinds on the estate. That would be putting yourself at a disadvantage before you even spoke to her. You must remember she has lived on the continent all her life, has been used to great refinement, many servants—they say foreign ones are much better than ours—and she is certain to have brought a quantity of clothes, and jewels too, perhaps, besides Mr. Ashley’s things. She will have heard so much about the house from him that she will expect something very fine, like her own villa. And to have it all untidy, dusty, smelling like a kennel—why, you would not want her to find it so, Philip, for his sake, surely?”

God damn it, I was angry. “What the devil do you mean,” I said, “by my house smelling like a kennel? It’s a man’s house, plain and homely, and please God it always will be. Neither Ambrose nor I went in for fancy furnishings and little ornaments on tables that come crashing to the ground if you brush your knee against them.”

She had the grace to look contrite, if not ashamed.

“I’m sorry,” she said, “I did not mean to offend you. You know I love your house, I have a great affection for it and always will. But I can’t help saying what I think, as to the way it’s kept. Nothing new for so long, no real warmth about it, and lacking—well, lacking comfort, if you’ll forgive that too.”

I thought of the bright trim parlor where she made my godfather sit of an evening, and I knew which I would prefer to have, and he too in all probability, faced with the choice of that and my library.

“All right,” I said, “forget my lack of comfort. It suited Ambrose, and it suits me, and for the space of a few days—however long she chooses so to honor me with her presence—it can suit my cousin Rachel too.”

Louise shook her head at me.

“You’re quite incorrigible,” she said. “If Mrs. Ashley is the woman I believe her to be she will take one look at the house and then seek refuge in St. Austell, or with us.”

“You’re very welcome,” I replied, “when I have done with her.”

Louise looked at me curiously. “Will you really dare to question her?” she asked. “Where will you begin?”

I shrugged my shoulders. “I can’t say until I have seen her. She’ll try to bluster her way out, I have no doubt. Or maybe make a great play of emotion, swoon and have hysterics. That won’t worry me. I shall watch her, and enjoy it.”

“I don’t think she will bluster,” said Louise, “nor have hysterics. She will merely sweep into the house and take command. Don’t forget, she must be used to giving orders.”

“She won’t give them in my house.”

“Poor Seecombe! What I would give to see his face. She will throw things at him, if he fails to come when she pulls her bell. Italians are very passionate, you know, very quick-tempered. I have always heard so.”

“She’s only half Italian,” I reminded her, “and I think Seecombe is well able to take care of himself. Perhaps it will rain for three days, and she will be confined to bed with rheumatism.”

We laughed together in the summerhouse, like a pair of children, but for all that I was not so light of heart as I pretended. The invitation had been flung onto the air like a challenge, and already I think I had regretted it, though I did not say so to Louise. I regretted it more when I went home and looked about me. Dear heaven, it was a foolhardy thing to go and do, and had it not been for pride I think I would have ridden back to my godfather and told him to send no message from me, when he wrote to Plymouth.

What in the world was I to do with that woman in my house? What indeed should I say to her, what action should I take? If Rainaldi had been plausible, she would be ten times more so. Direct attack might not succeed, and what was it the Italian had said anyway about tenacity, and women fighting battles? If she should be loudmouthed, vulgar, I thought I knew how to shut her up. A fellow from one of the farms became entangled with such a one, who would have sued him for breach of promise, and I soon had her packing back to Devon, where she belonged. But sugary, insidious, with heaving bosom and sheep’s eyes, could I deal with that? I believed so. I had met with some of these in Oxford, and I always found extreme bluntness of speech, amounting to brutality, sent them back to their holes in the ground with no bones broken. No, all things considered, I was pretty cocksure, pretty confident, that when I had actual speech with my cousin Rachel I should find my tongue. But preparations for the visit, that was the deuce, the facade of courtesy before the salute to arms.

To my great surprise, Seecombe received the idea without dismay. It was almost as if he had expected it. I told him briefly that Mrs. Ashley had arrived in England, bringing with her Mr. Ambrose’s effects, and that it was possible she would arrive for a short visit within the week. His underlip did not just forward, as it usually did when faced with any problem, and he listened to me with gravity.

“Yes, sir,” he said, “very right and very proper. We shall all be glad to welcome Mrs. Ashley.”

I glanced at him over my pipe, amused at his pomposity.

“I thought,” I said, “you were like me, and did not care for women in the house. You sang a different tune when I told you Mr. Ambrose had been married, and she would be mistress here.”

He looked shocked. This time the nether lip went forward.

“That was not the same, sir,” he said; “there has been tragedy since then. The poor lady is widowed. Mr. Ambrose would have wished us to do what we can for her, especially as it seems”—he coughed discreetly—“that Mrs. Ashley has not benefited in any way from the decease.”

I wondered how the devil he knew that, and asked him.

“It’s common talk, sir,” he said, “all around the place. Everything left to you, Mr. Philip, nothing to the widow. It is not usual, you see. In every family, big or small, there is always provision for the widow.”

“I’m surprised at you, Seecombe,” I said, “lending your ear to gossip.”

“Not gossip, sir,” he said with dignity; “what concerns the Ashley family concerns us all. We, the servants, were not forgotten.”

I had a vision of him sitting out at the back there, in his room, the steward’s room as it was called from long custom, and coming in to chat and drink a glass of bitter with him would be Wellington, the old coachman, Tamlyn, the head gardener, and the first woodman—none of the young servants, of course, would be permitted to join them—and the affairs of the will, which I had thought most secret, would be discussed and puzzled over and discussed again with pursed lips and shaking heads.

“It was not a question of forgetfulness,” I said shortly. “The fact that Mr. Ashley was abroad, and not at home, made matters of business out of the question. He did not expect to die there. Had he come home things would have been otherwise.”

“Yes, sir,” he said, “that is what we thought.”

Oh, well, they could cluck their tongues about the will, it made no odds. But I wondered, with a sudden flash of bitterness, what their manner would have been to me if, after all, I had not inherited the property. Would the deference be there? The respect? The loyalty? Or would I have been young Master Philip, a poor relative, with a room of my own stuck away somewhere at the back of the house? I knocked out my pipe, the taste was dry and dusty. How many people were there, I wondered, who liked me and served me for myself alone?

“That is all, Seecombe,” I said. “I will let you know if Mrs. Ashley decides to visit us. I don’t know about a room. I leave that side of the business to you.”

“Why surely, Mr. Philip, sir,” said Seecombe in surprise, “it will be correct to put Mrs. Ashley into Mr. Ashley’s own room?”

I stared at him, shocked into sudden silence. Then fearing my feelings showed in my face, I turned away.

“No,” I said, “that won’t be possible. I shall be moving into Mr. Ashley’s room myself. I meant to tell you so before. I decided upon the change some days ago.”

It was a lie. I had not thought of such a thing until that moment.

“Very well, sir,” he said, “in that case the blue room and the dressing room will be more suitable for Mrs. Ashley.” And he left the room.

Good God, I thought, to put that woman into Ambrose’s room, what sacrilege. I flung myself down in my chair, biting the stem of my pipe. I felt angry, unsettled, sick of the whole concern. It was madness to have sent that message through my godfather, madness to have her in the house at all. What in the name of the devil had I let myself in for? That idiot, Seecombe, with his ideas of what was right and what was wrong.

The invitation was accepted. She wrote a letter back to my godfather, not to me. Which, as no doubt Seecombe would have thought, was duly right and proper. The invitation had not come direct from me, therefore it must be returned through the correct channel. She would be ready, she said, whenever it was convenient to send for her, or if not convenient she would come by post chaise. I replied, again through my godfather, that I would send the carriage for her on the Friday. And that was that.

Friday came all too soon. A moody, fitful sort of day, with gusts of wind. We often had them thus, the third week in September, with the big tides of the year. The clouds were low, scudding across the sky from the southwest, threatening rain before the evening. I hoped it would rain. One of our true downpours, with maybe a gale thrown in for further measure. A west country welcome. No Italian skies. I had sent Wellington off with the horses the day before. He would stay overnight in Plymouth and return with her. Ever since I had told the servants that Mrs. Ashley was expected a sort of unrest had come upon the house. Even the dogs were aware of it and followed me about from room to room. Seecombe reminded me of some old priest who, after years of abstinence from any form of religious celebration, suddenly conforms again to forgotten ritual. He moved about, mysterious and solemn, with hushed footsteps—he had even bought himself a pair of soft-soled slippers—and bits of silver I had never seen in my life before were borne into the dining room and placed on the table, or on the sideboard. Relics, I suppose, of my uncle Philip’s day. Great candlesticks, sugar-castors, goblets, and a silver bowl filled—great Joshua—with roses placed as a centerpiece.

“Since when,” I said to him, “have you turned acolyte? What about the incense, and the holy water?”

He did not move a muscle of his face. He stood back, surveying the relics.

“I have asked Tamlyn to bring cut flowers from the walled garden,” he said. “The boys are sorting them now, out at the back. We shall need flowers in the drawing room, and in the blue bedroom, in the dressing room and boudoir.” He frowned at the pantry boy, young John, who slipped and nearly fell, staggering under the load of yet another pair of candlesticks.

The dogs gazed up at me, dejected. One of them crept and hid under the settle in the hall. I went upstairs. Heaven knows when last I had trespassed into the blue room. We never had visitors, and it was connected in my mind with some game of hide-and-seek, long since, when Louise had come over with my godfather one Christmas. I could remember creeping into the silent room and hiding beneath the bed, among the dust. I had a dim recollection that Ambrose had once said it was aunt Phoebe’s room, and aunt Phoebe had gone away to live in Kent, and later died.

No trace of her remained today. The boys, under Seecombe’s direction, had worked hard, and aunt Phoebe had been swept away with the dust of years. The windows were open, looking out on the grounds, and the morning sun shone on the well-beaten rugs. Fresh linen, of a quality unknown to me, had been put upon the bed. Had that washstand and ewer always been there, I wondered, in the dressing room adjoining? Did that easy chair belong? I remembered none of them, but then I remembered nothing of aunt Phoebe, who had taken herself to Kent before I was even born. Well, what had done for her would do for my cousin Rachel.

The third room, under the arch, making up the suite, had been aunt Phoebe’s boudoir. This too had been dusted, and the windows opened. I dare say I had not entered this room either since those days of hide-and-seek. There was a portrait of Ambrose hanging on the wall above the fireplace, painted when he was a young man. I did not even know of its existence, and he had probably forgotten it. Had it been done by some well-known painter it would have been below with the other family portraits, but sent up here, to a room never used, suggested no one had thought much of it. It was painted three-quarter length, and he had his gun under his arm and carried a dead partridge in his left hand. The eyes looked ahead, into my eyes, and the mouth smiled a little. His hair was longer than I remembered it. There was nothing very striking in the portrait, or in the face. Only one thing. It was strangely like myself. I looked in the mirror, and back again to the portrait, and the only difference lay in the slant of his eyes, something narrower than mine, and in his darker coloring of hair. We could be brothers, though, almost twin brothers, that young man in the portrait and myself. This sudden realization of our likeness gave an uplift to my spirits. It was as if the young Ambrose was smiling at me saying “I am with you.” And the older Ambrose, too, felt very close. I shut the door behind me and, passing back once more through the dressing room and the blue bedroom, went downstairs.

I heard the sound of wheels out on the drive. It was Louise, in the dogcart, and she had great bunches of michaelmas daisies and dahlias on the seat beside her.

“For the drawing room,” she called, on sight of me. “I thought that Seecombe might be glad of them.”

Seecombe, passing that moment through the hall with his drove of minions, looked offended. He stood stiffly, as Louise passed into the house carrying the flowers. “You should not have troubled, Miss Louise,” he said, “I had made all arrangements with Tamlyn. Sufficient flowers were brought in first thing from the walled garden.”

“I can arrange them, then,” said Louise; “your men will only break the vases. I suppose you have vases. Or have they been cramming the flowers into jam-pots?”

Seecombe’s face was a study in pained dignity. I pushed Louise into the library hurriedly and shut the door.

“I wondered,” said Louise, in an undertone, “whether you would have liked me to stay and see to things, and be here when Mrs. Ashley comes. Father would have accompanied me, but he is still rather unwell, and with this threatening rain I thought it best he remained indoors. What do you say? Shall I stay? These flowers were only an excuse.”

I felt vaguely irritated that both she and my godfather should think me so incapable, and poor old Seecombe too, who had worked like a slave driver for the past three days.

“Good of you to suggest it,” I said, “but quite unnecessary. We can manage very well.”

She looked disappointed. She was evidently afire with curiosity to see my visitor. I did not tell her that I had no intention of being in the house myself when she arrived.

Louise looked critically about the room, but made no comment. No doubt she saw many faults, but had the tact to hold her tongue.

“You can go upstairs, if you like, and see the blue room,” I told her, as a sop to disappointment.

“The blue room?” said Louise. “That’s the one facing east, over the drawing room, isn’t it? Then you have not put her in Mr. Ashley’s room?”

“I have not,” I said. “I use Ambrose’s room myself.”

This insistence that she, and everybody else, should put upon the placing of Ambrose’s room at the disposal of his widow added fresh fuel to my rising irritation.

“If you really wish to arrange the flowers, ask Seecombe for some vases,” I said, going towards the door. “I have a mass of things to do outside, and shall be away about the estate most of the day.”

She picked up the flowers, glancing at me as she did so.

“I believe you’re nervous,” she said.

“I am not nervous,” I said, “I merely want to be alone.”

She flushed and turned away, and I felt the prick of conscience that always came to me after wounding anyone.

“Sorry, Louise,” I said, patting her shoulder, “don’t take any notice of me. And bless you for coming, and bringing the flowers, and for offering to stay.”

“When shall I see you again,” she asked, “to hear about Mrs. Ashley? You know I shall be longing to know everything. Of course, if Father is better we shall come down to Church on Sunday, but all tomorrow I shall be thinking and wondering…”

“Wondering what?” I said. “If I have thrown my cousin Rachel over the headland? I might do that, if she goads me hard enough. Listen—just to satisfy you—I will ride over tomorrow afternoon to Pelyn, and paint a vivid picture for you. Does that content you?”

“That will do very well,” she answered, smiling, and went off to find Seecombe and the vases.

I was out all morning and returned about two, hungry and thirsty after my ride, and had some cold meat and a glass of ale. Louise had gone. Seecombe and the servants were in their own quarters, sitting down to their midday dinner. I stood alone in the library, munching my sandwich of meat and bread. Alone, I thought, for the last time. Tonight she would be here, either in this room or in the drawing room, an unknown hostile presence, stamping her personality upon my rooms, my house. She came as an intruder to my home. I did not want her. I did not want her or any woman, with peering eyes and questing fingers, forcing herself into the atmosphere, intimate and personal, that was mine alone. The house was still and silent, and I was part of it, belonging, as Ambrose had done and still did, somewhere in the shadows. We needed no one else to break the silence.

I looked about the room, almost in farewell, and then went out of the house and plunged into the woods.

I judged that Wellington would be home with the carriage not earlier than five o’clock, so I determined to remain without until after six. They could wait dinner for me. Seecombe already had his instructions. If she was hungry, she must hold her hunger until the master of the house returned. It gave me satisfaction to think of her sitting alone in the drawing room, dressed to the nines, full of self-importance, and no one to receive her.

I went on walking in the wind and rain. Up the avenue to where the four roads met, and eastwards to the boundary of our land; then back through the woods again and northwards to the outlying farms, where I made a point of dallying and talking with the tenants, thus spacing out the time. Across the park and over the westward hills, and home at last by the Barton, just as it grew dusk. I was wet nearly to the skin but I did not care.

I opened the hall door and went into the house. I expected to see the signs of arrival, boxes and trunks, travel rugs and baskets; but all was as usual, there was nothing there.

A fire was burning in the library, but the room was empty. In the dining room a place was laid for one. I pulled the bell for Seecombe. “Well?” I said.

He wore his newfound look of self-importance, and his voice was hushed.

“Madam has come,” he said.

“So I would suppose,” I answered, “it must be nearly seven. Did she bring luggage? What have you done with it?”

“Madam brought little of her own,” he said. “The boxes and trunks belonged to Mr. Ambrose. They have all been put in your old room, sir.”

“Oh,” I said. I walked over to the fire and kicked a log. I would not have him notice for the world that my hands were trembling.

“Where is Mrs. Ashley now?” I said.

“Madam has gone to her room, sir,” he said. “She seemed tired, and she asked you to excuse her for dinner. I had a tray taken up to her about an hour ago.”

His words came as a relief. Yet in a sense it was an anticlimax.

“What sort of journey did she have?” I asked.

“Wellington said the road after Liskeard was rough, sir,” he answered, “and it was blowing hard. One of the horses cast a shoe, and they had to turn in at the smithy before Lostwithiel.”

“H’m.” I turned my back upon the fire and warmed my legs.

“You’re very wet, sir,” said Seecombe. “Better change your things, or you’ll take cold.”

“I will directly,” I answered him, and then, glancing about the room, “Where are the dogs?”

“I think they followed madam upstairs,” he said, “at least old Don did, I am not certain of the others.”

I went on warming my legs before the fire. Seecombe still hovered by the door, as if expecting me to draw him in conversation.

“All right,” I said, “I’ll bath and change. Tell one of the boys to take up the hot water. And I’ll dine in half an hour.”

I sat down that evening alone to my dinner before the newly polished candlesticks and the silver rose bowl. Seecombe stood behind my chair, but we did not speak. Silence must have been torture to him, on this night of nights, for I knew how much he longed to comment on the new arrival. Well, he could bide his time, and then let forth to his heart’s content in the steward’s room.

Just as I finished dinner, John came into the room and whispered to him. Seecombe came and bent over my shoulder.

“Madam has sent word that if you should wish to see her, when you have dined, she will be pleased to receive you,” he said.

“Thank you, Seecombe.”

When they had left the room I did something that I very rarely did. Only after extreme exhaustion, after riding perhaps, or a hard day’s shoot, or buffeting about in a summer gale in the sailing boat with Ambrose. I went to the sideboard and poured myself a glass of brandy. Then I went upstairs, and knocked upon the door of the little boudoir.