My Cousin Rachel Chapter 8

A low voice, almost inaudible, bade me come in. Although it was now dark, and the candles had been lit, the curtains were not drawn, and she was sitting on the window seat looking out onto the garden. Her back was turned to me, her hands were clasped in her lap. She must have thought me one of the servants, for she did not move when I entered the room. Don lay before the fire, his muzzle in his paws and the two young dogs beside him. Nothing had been moved in the room, no drawers opened in the small secretaire, no clothes flung down; there was none of the litter of arrival.

“Good evening,” I said, and my voice sounded strained and unnatural in the little room. She turned, and rose at once and came towards me. It was happening so quickly that I had no time, no moment for reflection back upon the hundred images I had formed of her during the past eighteen months. The woman who had pursued me through the nights and days, haunted my waking hours, disturbing my dreams, was now beside me. My first feeling was one of shock, almost of stupefaction, that she should be so small. She barely reached my shoulder. She had nothing like the height or the figure of Louise.

She was dressed in deep black, which took the color from her hair, and there was lace at her throat and at her wrists. Her hair was brown, parted in the center with a low knot behind, her features neat and regular. The only things large about her were the eyes, which at first sight of me widened in sudden recognition, startled, like the eyes of a deer, and from recognition to bewilderment, from bewilderment to pain, almost to apprehension. I saw the color come into her face and go again, and I think I was as great a shock to her as she was to me. It would be hazardous to say which of us was the more nervous, which the more ill-at-ease.

I stared down at her and she looked up at me, and it was a moment before either of us spoke. When we did, it was to speak together.

“I hope you are rested,” was my stiff contribution, and hers, “I owe you an apology.” She followed up my opening swiftly with “Thank you, Philip, yes,” and moving towards the fire she sat down on a low stool beside it and motioned me to the chair opposite. Don, the old retriever, stretched and yawned, and pulling himself onto his haunches placed his head upon her lap.

“This is Don, isn’t it?” she said, putting her hand on his nose. “Was he really fourteen last birthday?”

“Yes,” I said, “his birthday is a week before my own.”

“You found him in a piecrust with your breakfast,” she said. “Ambrose was hiding behind the screen in the dining room, and watched you open up the pie. He told me he would never forget the look of amazement on your face when you lifted the crust and Don struggled out. You were ten years old, and it was the first of April.”

She looked up from patting Don, and smiled at me; and to my great discomfiture I saw tears in her eyes, gone upon the instant.

“I owe you an apology for not coming down to dinner,” she said. “You had made so much preparation, just for me, and must have come hurrying home long before you wanted. But I was very tired. I would have made a poor sort of companion. It seemed to me that it would be easier for you if you dined alone.”

I thought of how I had tramped about the estate from east to west so as to keep her waiting, and I said nothing. One of the younger dogs woke up and licked my hand. I pulled his ears to give myself employment.

“Seecombe told me how busy you were, and how much there is to do,” she said. “I don’t want you to feel hampered in any way by my sudden unexpected visit. I can find my way about alone, and shall be happy doing so. You mustn’t make any sort of alteration in your day tomorrow because of me. I just want to say one thing, which is thank you, Philip, for letting me come. It can’t have been easy for you.”

She rose then, and crossed over to the window to draw the curtains. The rain was beating against the panes. Perhaps I should have drawn the curtains for her, I did not know. I stood up, awkwardly, in an attempt to do so, but it was too late anyway. She came back beside the fire, and we both sat down again.

“It was such a strange feeling,” she said, “driving through the park and up to the house, with Seecombe standing by the door to welcome me. I’ve done it so many times, you know, in fancy. Everything was just as I had imagined it. The hall, the library, the pictures on the walls. The clock struck four as the carriage drove up to the door; I even knew the sound of it.” I went on pulling at the puppy’s ears. I did not look at her. “In the evenings, in Florence,” she said, “last summer and winter before Ambrose became ill, we used to talk about the journey home. It was his happiest time. He would tell me about the gardens, and the woods, and the path down to the sea. We always intended to return by the route I came; that’s why I did it. Genoa, and so to Plymouth. And the carriage coming there with Wellington to bring us back. It was good of you to do that, to know how I would feel.”

I felt something of a fool, but found my tongue.

“I fear the drive was rather rough,” I said, “and Seecombe told me you were obliged to stop at the smithy to shoe one of the horses. I’m sorry about that.”

“It did not worry me,” she said. “I was quite happy, sitting beside the fire there, watching the work and chatting to Wellington.”

Her manner was quite easy now. That first nervousness had gone, if it had been nervousness at all. I could not tell. I found now that if anyone was at fault it was myself, for I felt oddly large and clumsy in so small a room, and the chair in which I was sitting might have been made for a dwarf. There is nothing so defeating to ease of manner as being uncomfortably seated, and I wondered what sort of a figure I must cut, hunched there in the damnable little chair, with my large feet tucked awkwardly beneath it and my long arms hanging down on either side of it.

“Wellington pointed out to me the entrance to Mr. Kendall’s house,” she said, “and for a moment I wondered if it would be right, and polite, to go and pay him my respects. But it was late, and the horses had been far, and very selfishly I was longing to be—here.” She had paused a moment before saying the word “here,” and it came to me that she had been on the point of saying “home” but checked herself. “Ambrose had described it all so well to me,” she said, “from the entrance hall to every room in the house. He even sketched them for me, so that today, I well believe, I could find my way blindfold.” She paused a moment, and then she said, “It was perceptive of you to let me have these rooms. They were the ones we meant to use, had we been together. Ambrose always intended you to have his room, and Seecombe told me you had moved into it. Ambrose would be glad.”

“I hope you’ll be comfortable,” I said. “Nobody seems to have been in here since someone called aunt Phoebe.”

“Aunt Phoebe fell lovesick of a curate, and went away to Tonbridge to mend a broken heart,” she said, “but the heart proved stubborn, and aunt Phoebe took a chill that lasted twenty years. Did you never hear the story?”

“No,” I said, and glanced across at her, under my eyes. She was looking into the fire, smiling, I suppose at the thought of aunt Phoebe. Her hands were clasped on her lap in front of her. I had never seen hands so small before on an adult person. They were very slender, very narrow, like the hands of someone in a portrait painted by an old master and left unfinished.

“Well,” I said, “what happened to aunt Phoebe?”

“The chill left her, after twenty years, at sight of another curate. But by then aunt Phoebe was five-and-forty, and her heart was not so brittle. She married the second curate.”

“Was the marriage a success?”

“No,” said my cousin Rachel, “she died on her wedding night—of shock.”

She turned and looked at me, her mouth twitching, yet her eyes still solemn, and suddenly I had a vision of Ambrose telling the story, as he must have done, hunched in his chair, his shoulders shaking, with her looking up at him in just this way, concealing laughter. I could not help myself. I smiled at cousin Rachel, and something happened to her eyes and she smiled back at me.

“I think you made it up upon this instant,” I said to her, instantly regretting my smile.

“I did nothing of the sort,” she said. “Seecombe will know the story. Ask him.”

I shook my head. “He would not think it fitting. And he would be deeply shocked if he thought you had told it to me. I forgot to ask you if he brought you anything for dinner?”

“Yes. A cup of soup, a wing of chicken, and a deviled kidney. All were excellent.”

“You realize, of course, there are no women servants in the house? No one to look after you, to hang your gowns, only young John or Arthur to fill your bath?”

“I much prefer it. Women chatter so. As to my gowns, all mourning is the same. I have only brought this and one other. I have strong shoes for walking in the grounds.”

“If it rains like this tomorrow you will have to stay indoors,” I said. “There are plenty of books in the library. I don’t read much myself, but you might find something to your taste.”

Her mouth twitched again and she looked at me gravely. “I could always polish the silver,” she said. “I had not thought to see so much of it. Ambrose used to say it turned to mildew by the sea.” I could swear from her expression that she had guessed the array of relics came from a long-locked cupboard, and that behind her large eyes she was laughing at me.

I looked away. I had smiled at her once, I was damned if I would smile at her again.

“At the villa,” she said, “when it was very hot, we would sit out in a little court there, with a fountain. Ambrose would tell me to close my eyes, and listen to the water, making believe that it was the rain falling at home. He had a great theory, you know, that I should shrink and shiver in the English climate, especially the damp Cornish one; he called me a greenhouse plant, fit only for expert cultivation, quite useless in the common soil. I was city-bred, he said, and overcivilized. Once I remember I came down to dinner wearing a new gown, and he told me I reeked of old Rome. ‘You’ll freeze in that at home,’ he said; ‘it will be flannel next the skin, and a woolen shawl.’ I haven’t forgotten his advice. I brought the shawl.” I glanced up. Indeed she had one, black like her dress, lying on the stool beside her.

“In England,” I said, “especially down here, we lay great stress upon the weather. We have to, by the sea. Our land isn’t very rich, you see, for farming, not as it is up-country. The soil is poor, and with four days out of seven wet we’re very dependent on the sun when it does shine. This will take off tomorrow, I dare say, and you’ll get your walk.”

“ ’Bove town and Bawden’s meadow,” she said, “Kemp’s close and Beef Park, Kilmoor and beacon field, the Twenty Acres, and the West Hills.”

I looked at her astonished. “You know the names of the Barton lands?” I said.

“Why yes, I’ve known them by heart now for near two years,” she answered.

I was silent. There seemed nothing I could say in answer. Then, “It’s rough walking for a woman,” I told her gruffly.

“But I have strong shoes,” she answered me.

The foot she thrust out from beneath her gown seemed to me woefully inadequate for walking, clad as it was in a black velvet slipper.

“That?” I asked.

“Of course not, something stronger,” she replied.

I could not picture her tramping about the fields, however much she saw herself. And my plowman boots would drown her.

“Can you ride?” I asked her.


“Can you sit upon a horse if you were led?”

“I might do that,” she answered, “but I would have to hold onto the saddle with both hands. And isn’t there something called a pommel on which one balances?”

She put the question with great earnestness, her eyes solemn, yet once more I was certain there was laughter hidden there and she wished to draw me. “I’m not sure,” I said stiffly, “if we have a lady’s saddle. I’ll ask Wellington, but I have never seen one in the harness room.”

“Perhaps aunt Phoebe used to ride,” she said, “when she lost her curate. It may have been her only consolation.”

It was useless. Something bubbled in her voice, and I was lost. She saw me laughing, that was the devil of it. I looked away.

“All right,” I said, “I’ll see about it in the morning. Do you think I should ask Seecombe to search the closets and see if aunt Phoebe left a riding habit too?”

“I shan’t need a habit,” she said, “not if you lead me gently and I balance on that pommel.”

At that moment Seecombe knocked upon the door and entered, bearing in his hands a silver kettle upon a monstrous tray, likewise a silver teapot and a canister. I had never set eyes upon the things before, and I wondered from what labyrinth in the steward’s room he had come upon them. And for what purpose did he bring them? My cousin Rachel saw the amazement in my eyes. Not for the world would I hurt Seecombe, who placed his offering upon the table with great dignity, but a rising tide of something near hysteria rose in my chest, and I got up from my chair and went over to the window in pretense of looking out upon the rain.

“Tea is served, madam,” said Seecombe.

“Thank you, Seecombe,” she answered solemnly.

The dogs rose, sniffing, thrusting their noses at the tray. They were as amazed as I. Seecombe clicked at them with his tongue.

“Come, Don,” he said, “come on, all three of you. I think, madam, I had better remove the dogs. They might upset the tray.”

“Yes, Seecombe,” she said, “perhaps they might.”

Again that laughter in the voice. I was thankful my back was turned to her. “What about breakfast, madam?” asked Seecombe. “Mr. Philip has his in the dining room at eight o’clock.”

“I should like mine in my room,” she said. “Mr. Ashley used to say no woman was fit to look upon before eleven. Will that give trouble?”

“Certainly not, madam.”

“Then thank you, Seecombe, and good night.”

“Good night, madam. Good night, sir. Come, dogs.”

He snapped his fingers and they followed him reluctantly. There was silence in the room for a few moments and then she said softly: “Would you like some tea? I understand it is a Cornish custom.”

My dignity vanished. Holding to it had become too great a strain. I went back to the fire and sat on the stool beside the table.

“I’ll tell you something,” I said. “I have never seen this tray before, nor the kettle, nor the teapot.”

“I didn’t think you had,” she said. “I saw the look in your eyes when Seecombe brought them into the room. I don’t believe he has seen them before either. They’re buried treasure. He has dug for them in the cellars.”

“Is it really the thing to do,” I asked, “to drink tea after dinner?”

“Of course,” she said, “in high society, when ladies are present.”

“We never have it on Sundays,” I said, “when the Kendalls and the Pascoes come to dinner.”

“Perhaps Seecombe doesn’t consider them high society,” she said. “I’m very flattered. I like my tea. You can eat the bread and butter.”

This too was an innovation. Pieces of thin bread, rolled like small sausages. “I’m surprised they knew how to do this in the kitchen,” I said, swallowing them down, “but they’re very good.”

“A sudden inspiration,” said cousin Rachel, “and no doubt you will have what is left for breakfast. That butter is melting, you had better suck your fingers.”

She drank her tea, watching me over her cup.

“If you want to smoke your pipe, you can,” she said.

I stared at her surprised.

“In a lady’s boudoir?” I said. “Are you sure? Why, on Sundays, when Mrs. Pascoe comes with the vicar, we never smoke in the drawing room.”

“It’s not the drawing room, and I’m not Mrs. Pascoe,” she answered me.

I shrugged my shoulders and felt in my pocket for my pipe.

“Seecombe will think it very wrong,” I said. “He’ll smell it in the morning.”

“I’ll open the window before I go to bed,” she said. “It will all blow out, with the rain.”

“The rain will come in and spoil the carpet,” I said, “then that will be worse than the smell of the pipe.”

“It can be rubbed down with a cloth,” she said. “How pernickety you are, like an old gentleman.”

“I thought women minded about such things.”

“They do, when they have nothing else to worry them,” she said.

It struck me suddenly as I smoked my pipe, sitting there in aunt Phoebe’s boudoir, that this was not at all the way I had intended to spend the evening. I had planned a few words of icy courtesy and an abrupt farewell, leaving the interloper snubbed, dismissed.

I glanced up at her. She had finished her tea, and put the cup and saucer back on the tray. Once again I was aware of her hands, narrow and small and very white, and I wondered if Ambrose had called them city-bred. She wore two rings, fine stones both of them, on her fingers, yet they seemed to clash in no way with her mourning, nor be out of keeping with her person. I was glad I had the bowl of my pipe to hold, and the stem to bite upon; it made me feel more like myself and less like a sleepwalker, muddled by a dream. There were things I should be doing, things I should be saying, and here was I sitting like a fool before the fire, unable to collect my thoughts or my impressions. The day, so long-drawn-out and anxious, was now over, and I could not for the life of me decide whether it had turned to my advantage or gone against me. If only she had borne some resemblance to the image I had created I would know better what to do, but now that she was here, beside me, in the flesh, the images seemed fantastic crazy things that all turned into one another and then faded into darkness.

Somewhere there was a bitter creature, crabbed and old, hemmed about with lawyers; somewhere a larger Mrs. Pascoe, loud-voiced, arrogant; somewhere a petulant spoiled doll, with corkscrew curls; somewhere a viper, sinuous and silent. But none of them was with me in this room. Anger seemed futile now, and hatred too, and as for fear—how could I fear anyone who did not measure up to my shoulder, and had nothing remarkable about her save a sense of humor and small hands? Was it for this that one man had fought a duel, and another, dying, written to me and said, “She’s done for me at last, Rachel my torment?” It was as though I had blown a bubble in the air, and stood by to watch it dance; and the bubble had now burst.

I must remember, I thought to myself, nearly nodding by the flickering fire, not to drink brandy another time after a ten-mile walk in the rain; it dulls the senses and it does not ease the tongue. I had come to fight this woman and I had not even started. What was it she had said about aunt Phoebe’s saddle?

“Philip,” said the voice, very quiet, very low, “Philip, you’re nearly asleep. Will you please get up and go to bed?”

I opened my eyes with a jerk. She was sitting watching me, her hands in her lap. I stumbled to my feet, and nearly crashed the tray.

“I’m sorry,” I said, “it must have been because I was sitting cramped there on that stool, it made me sleepy. I usually stretch my legs out in the library.”

“You took a lot of exercise today too, didn’t you?” she said.

Her voice was innocent enough and yet… What did she mean? I frowned, and stood staring down at her, determined to say nothing. “If it’s fine then tomorrow morning,” she said, “will you really find a horse for me that will be steady and quiet, so that I can sit up on him and go and see the Barton acres?”

“Yes,” I said, “if you want to go.”

“I needn’t bother you; Wellington shall lead me.”

“No, I can take you. I have nothing else to do.”

“Wait though,” she said, “you forget it will be Saturday. That’s the morning you pay the wages. We’ll wait till afternoon.”

I looked down at her, nonplussed. “Great heavens,” I said, “how in the world do you know that I pay the wages on Saturday?”

To my dismay and great embarrassment, her eyes grew bright suddenly, and wet, as they had done earlier when she talked of my tenth birthday. And her voice became much harder than before.

“If you don’t know,” she said, “you have less understanding than I thought. Stay here a moment, I have a present for you.”

She opened the door and passed into the blue bedroom opposite, and returned within a moment carrying a stick in her hand.

“Here,” she said, “take it, it’s yours. Everything else you can sort out and see another time, but I wanted to give you this myself, tonight.”

It was Ambrose’s walking stick. The one he always used, and leaned upon. The one with the gold band, and the dog’s head on the top carved in ivory.

“Thank you,” I said awkwardly, “thank you very much.”

“Now go,” she said, “please go, quickly.”

And she pushed me from the room, and shut the door.

I stood outside, holding the stick in my hands. She had not given me time even to wish her good night. No sound came from the boudoir, and I walked slowly down the corridor to my own room. I thought of the expression in her eyes as she gave me the stick. Once, not so long ago, I had seen other eyes with that same age-old look of suffering. Those eyes too had held reserve and pride, coupled with the same abasement, the same agony of supplication. It must be, I thought, as I came to my room, Ambrose’s room, and examined the well-remembered walking stick, it must be because the eyes are the same color and they belong to the same race. Otherwise they could have nothing in common, the beggar woman beside the Arno and my cousin Rachel.