My Cousin Rachel Chapter 9

I was down early the following morning, and immediately after breakfast walked across to the stables and summoned Wellington, and we went together to the harness room.

Yes, there were some half-dozen sidesaddles among the rest. I suppose the fact was that I had never noticed them.

“Mrs. Ashley cannot ride,” I told him. “All she wants is something to sit upon and to cling onto.”

“We’d better put her up on Solomon,” said the old coachman. “He may never have carried a lady but he won’t let her down, that’s certain. I couldn’t be sure, sir, of any of the other horses.”

Solomon had been hunted years back, by Ambrose, but now took his ease chiefly in the meadow, unless exercised on the high road by Wellington. The sidesaddles were high up on the wall of the harness room, and he had to send for the groom, and a short ladder, to bring them down. It caused quite a pother and excitement, the choice of the saddle; this one was too worn, the next too narrow for Solomon’s broad back, and the lad was scolded because the third had a cobweb across it. I laughed inwardly, guessing that neither Wellington nor anybody else had thought about those saddles for a quarter of a century, and told Wellington that a good polish with a leather would set it to rights, and Mrs. Ashley would think the saddle had come down from London yesterday.

“What time does the mistress wish to start?” he asked, and I stared at him a moment, taken aback by his choice of words.

“Some time after noon,” I said shortly. “You can bring Solomon round to the front door, and I shall be leading Mrs. Ashley myself.”

Then I turned back to the estate room, in the house, to reckon up the weekly books and check the accounts before the men came for their wages. The mistress indeed. Was that how they looked upon her, Wellington and Seecombe and the rest? I supposed in a sense it was natural of them, yet I thought how swiftly men, especially menservants, became fools when in the presence of a woman. That look of reverence in Seecombe’s eye when he had brought in the tea last night, and his respectful manner as he placed the tray before her, and this morning at breakfast it was young John, if you please, who waited by the sideboard and lifted the covers from my bacon, because “Mr. Seecombe,” he said,” has gone upstairs with the tray for the boudoir.” And now here was Wellington, in a state of excitement, polishing and rubbing at the old sidesaddle, and shouting over his shoulder to the boy to see to Solomon. I worked away at my accounts, glad to be so unmoved by the fact that a woman had slept under the roof for the first time since Ambrose had sent my nurse packing; and now I came to think of it her treatment of me as I nearly fell asleep, her words, “Philip, go to bed,” were what my nurse might have said to me, over twenty years ago.

At noon the servants came, and the men who worked outside in the stables, woods, and gardens, and I gave them their money; then I noticed that Tamlyn, the head gardener, was not among them. I inquired the reason, and was told that he was somewhere about the grounds with “the mistress.” I made no observation as to this, but paid the rest their wages and dismissed them. Some instinct told me where I should find Tamlyn and my cousin Rachel. I was right. They were in the forcing ground, where we had brought on the camellias, and the oleanders, and the other young trees that Ambrose had carried back from his travels.

I had never been an expert—I had left that to Tamlyn—and now as I rounded the corner and came upon them I could hear her talking about cuttings, and layers, and a north aspect, and the feeding of the soil, and Tamlyn listening to it all with his hat in his hand and the same look of reverence in the eye that Seecombe had, and Wellington. She smiled at the sight of me and rose to her feet. She had been kneeling on a piece of sacking, examining the shoots of a young tree.

“I’ve been out since half-past ten,” she said. “I looked for you to ask permission but could not find you, so I did a bold thing and went down myself to Tamlyn’s cottage to make myself known to him, didn’t I, Tamlyn?”

“You did, ma’am,” said Tamlyn, with a sheep’s look in his eye.

“You see, Philip,” she continued, “I brought with me to Plymouth—I could not get them in the carriage, they will follow on by carrier—all the plants and shrubs that we had collected, Ambrose and I, during the past two years. I have the lists here with me, and where he wished them to go, and I thought it would save time if I talked over the list with Tamlyn, and explained what everything was. I may be gone when the carrier brings the load.”

“That’s all right,” I said. “You both of you understand these things better than I do. Please continue.”

“We’ve finished, haven’t we, Tamlyn?” she said. “And will you please thank Mrs. Tamlyn for that cup of tea she gave me, and tell her that I do so hope her sore throat will be better by this evening? Oil of eucalyptus is the remedy, I will send some down to her.”

“Thank you, ma’am,” said Tamlyn (it was the first I had heard of his wife’s sore throat), and looking at me he added, with a little awkward air of diffidence, “I’ve learned some things this morning, Mr. Philip, sir, that I never thought to learn from a lady. I always believed I knew my work, but Mrs. Ashley knows more about gardening than I do, or ever will for that matter. Proper ignorant she’s made me feel.”

“Nonsense, Tamlyn,” said my cousin Rachel, “I only know about trees and shrubs. As to fruit—I haven’t the least idea how to set about growing a peach, and remember, you haven’t yet taken me round the walled garden. You shall do so tomorrow.”

“Whenever you wish, ma’am,” said Tamlyn, and she bade him good morning and we set back towards the house.

“If you have been out since after ten,” I said to her, “you will want to rest now. I will tell Wellington not to saddle the horse after all.”

“Rest?” she said. “Who talks of resting? I have been looking forward to my ride all morning. Look, the sun. You said it would break through. Are you going to lead me, or will Wellington?”

“No,” I said, “I’ll take you. And I warn you, you may be able to teach Tamlyn about camellias, but you won’t be able to do the same with me and farming.”

“I know oats from barley,” she said. “Doesn’t that impress you?”

“Not a jot,” I said, “and anyway, you won’t find either out on the acres, they’re all harvested.”

When we came to the house I discovered that Seecombe had laid out a cold luncheon of meat and salad in the dining room, complete with pies and puddings as though we were to sit for dinner. My cousin Rachel glanced at me, her face quite solemn, yet that look of laughter behind her eyes.

“You are a young man, and you have not finished growing,” she said. “Eat, and be thankful. Put a piece of that pie in your pocket and I will ask you for it when we are on the west hills. I am going upstairs now to dress myself suitably for riding.”

At least, I thought to myself as I tucked into the cold meat with hearty appetite, she does not expect waiting upon or other niceties, she has a certain independence of spirit that would seem, thank the Lord, unfeminine. The only irritation was that my manner with her, which I hoped was cutting, she apparently took in good part and enjoyed. My sarcasm was misread as joviality.

I had scarcely finished eating when Solomon was brought round to the door. The sturdy old horse had undergone the grooming of his lifetime. Even his hoofs were polished, an attention that was never paid to my Gypsy. The two young dogs pranced around his heels. Don watched them undisturbed; his running days were over, like his old friend Solomon’s.

I went to tell Seecombe we would be out till after four, and when I returned my cousin Rachel had come downstairs and was already mounted upon Solomon. Wellington was adjusting her stirrup. She had changed into another mourning gown, cut somewhat fuller than the other, and instead of a hat she had wound her black lace shawl about her hair for covering. She was talking to Wellington, her profile turned to me, and for some reason or other I remembered what she had said the night before about Ambrose teasing her, how he had told her once that she reeked of old Rome. I think I knew now what he meant. Her features were like those stamped on a Roman coin, definite, yet small; and now with that lace shawl wound about her hair I was reminded of the women I had seen kneeling in that cathedral in Florence, or lurking in the doorways of the silent houses. As she sat up on Solomon you could not tell that she was so small in stature when she stood upon the ground. The woman whom I considered unremarkable, save for her hands and her changing eyes and the bubble of laughter in her voice upon occasion, looked different now that she sat above me. She seemed more distant, more remote, and more—Italian.

She heard my footstep and turned towards me; and it went swiftly, the distant look, the foreign look, that had come upon her features in repose. She looked now as she had before.

“Ready?” I said. “Or are you fearful of falling?”

“I put my trust in you and Solomon,” she answered.

“Very well, then. Come on. We shall be about two hours, Wellington.” And taking the bridle I set off with her to tour the Barton acres.

The wind of the day before had blown itself up-country, taking the rain with it, and at noon the sun had broken through and the sky was clear. There was a salty brightness in the air, lending a zest to walking, and you could hear the running swell of the sea as it broke upon the rocks fringing the bay. We had these days often in the fall of the year. Belonging to no season they had a freshness all their own, yet with a hint of cooler hours to come and tasting still the aftermath of summer.

Ours was a strange pilgrimage. We started off by visiting the Barton, and it was as much as I could do to prevent Billy Rowe and his wife from inviting us inside the farmhouse to sit down to cakes and cream; in fact it was only by the promise of doing so on Monday that I got Solomon and my cousin Rachel past the byre and the midden and through the gates at all, up on the stubble of the west hills.

The Barton lands form a peninsula, the beacon fields forming the further end of it and the sea running into bays, east and west, on either side. As I had told her, the corn had all been carried, and I could lead old Solomon wherever I pleased, for he could do no damage on the stubble. The larger part of the Barton land is grazing land anyway, and to make a thorough tour of it all we kept close to the sea, and finally brought up by the beacon itself, so that looking back she could see the whole run of the estate, bounded on the western side by the great stretch of sandy bay and three miles to the eastward by the estuary. The Barton farm, and the house itself—the mansion, as Seecombe always called it—lay in a sort of saucer, but already the trees planted by Ambrose and my uncle Philip grew thick and fast to give the house more shelter, and to the north the new avenue wound through the woods and up the rise to where the four roads met.

Remembering her talk of the night before, I tried to test my cousin Rachel on the names of the Barton fields, but could not fault her; she knew them all. Her memory did not mislead her when she came to mention the various beaches, the headlands, and the other farms on the estate; she knew the names of the tenants, the size of their families, that Seecombe’s nephew lived in the fish house on the beach, and that his brother had the mill. She did not throw her information at me, it was rather I, my curiosity piqued, who led her onto disclose it, and when she gave me the names, and spoke of the people, it was as a matter of course and with something of wonder that I should think it strange.

“What do you suppose we talked of, Ambrose and I?” she said to me at last, as we came down from the beacon hill to the eastward fields. “His home was his passion, therefore I made it mine. Would you not expect a wife of yours to do the same?”

“Not possessing a wife I cannot say,” I answered her, “but I should have thought that having lived on the continent all your life your interests would have been entirely different.”

“So they were,” she said, “until I met Ambrose.”

“Except for gardens, I gather.”

“Except for gardens,” she agreed, “which was how it started, as he must have told you. My garden at the villa was very lovely, but this”—she paused a moment, reining in Solomon, and I stood with my hand on the bridle—“but this is what I have always wanted to see. This is different.” She said nothing for a moment or two, as she looked down on the bay. “At the villa,” she went on, “when I was young and first married—I am not referring to Ambrose—I was not very happy, so I distracted myself by designing afresh the gardens there, replanting much of them and terracing the walls. I sought advice, and shut myself up with books, and the results were very pleasing; at least I thought so, and was told so. I wonder what you would think of them.”

I glanced up at her. Her profile was turned towards the sea and she did not know that I was looking at her. What did she mean? Had not my godfather told her I had been to the villa?

A sudden misgiving came upon me. I remembered her composure of the night before, after the first nervousness on meeting, and also the easiness of our conversation, which, on thinking it over at breakfast, I had put down to her own social sense and my dullness after drinking brandy. It struck me now that it was odd she had said nothing last night about my visit to Florence, odder still that she had made no reference to the manner in which I had learned of Ambrose’s death. Could it be that my godfather had shirked that issue and left it to me to break it to her? I cursed him to myself for an old blunderer and a coward, and yet as I did so I knew that it was I myself who was the coward now. Last night, had I only told her last night, when I had the brandy inside me; but now, now it was not so easy. She would wonder why I had said nothing of it sooner. This was the moment, of course. This was the moment to say, “I have seen the gardens at your villa Sangalletti. Didn’t you know?” But she made a coaxing sound to Solomon and he moved on.

“Can we go past the mill, and up through the woods the other side?” she asked.

I had lost my opportunity, and we went on back towards home. As we progressed through the woods she made remarks from time to time about the trees, or the set of the hills, or some other feature; but for me the ease of the afternoon had gone, for somehow or other I had got to tell her about my visit to Florence. If I said nothing of it she would hear of it from Seecombe, or from my godfather himself when he came to dinner on Sunday. I became more and more silent as we drew towards the house.

“I’ve exhausted you,” she said. “Here I have been, riding like a queen on Solomon, and you walking all the while, pilgrim fashion. Forgive me, Philip. I’ve been so very happy. You can never guess how happy.”

“No, I’m not tired,” I said, “I’m—I’m delighted that you enjoyed your ride.” Somehow I could not look into those eyes, direct and questioning.

Wellington was waiting at the house to help her dismount. She went upstairs to rest before she changed for dinner, and I sat down in the library, frowning over my pipe and wondering how the devil I was to tell her about Florence. The worst of the business was that had my godfather told her of it in his letter it would have been for her to open the subject, and for me to relax and wait for what she said. As things stood at present, the move must come from me. Even this would not have mattered had she been the woman I expected. Why, in heaven’s name, did she have to be so different and play such havoc with my plans?

I washed my hands, and changed my coat for dinner, and put into my pocket the two last letters Ambrose had written me, but when I went into the drawing room, expecting to see her seated there, the room was empty. Seecombe, passing that moment through the hall, told me that “Madam” had gone into the library.

Now that she no longer sat on Solomon, above me, and had taken off the head-shawl and smoothed her hair, she seemed even smaller than before, and more defenseless. Paler too by candlelight, and her mourning gown darker in comparison.

“Do you mind my sitting here?” she said. “The drawing room is lovely in the daytime, but somehow now, at evening, with the curtains drawn and the candles lit, this room seems the best. Besides, it was where you and Ambrose always sat together.”

Now perhaps was my chance. Now to say, “Yes. You have nothing like this at the villa.” I was silent, and the dogs came in to make distraction. After dinner, I said to myself, after dinner is the time. And I will drink neither port nor brandy.

At dinner Seecombe placed her on my right hand, and both he and John waited upon us. She admired the rose bowl and the candlesticks, and talked to Seecombe as he handed the courses, and all the while I was in a sweat that he should say, “That happened, madam, or this occurred, when Mr. Philip was away in Italy.”

I could hardly wait for dinner to be over and for the pair of us to be alone again, though it brought me nearer to my task. We sat down together before the library fire, and she brought out some piece of embroidery and began to work upon it. I watched the small deft hands and wondered at them.

“Tell me what it is that is bothering you,” she said, after a while. “Don’t deny there is something, because I shall know you are not speaking the truth. Ambrose used to tell me I had an animal’s instinct for sensing trouble, and I sense it with you, tonight. In fact, since late afternoon. I have not said anything to hurt you, have I?”

Well, here it was. At least she had opened a way clear for me.

“You’ve said nothing to hurt me,” I replied, “but a chance remark of yours confounded me a little. Could you tell me what Nick Kendall said to you in the letter he wrote to Plymouth?”

“Why, certainly,” she said. “He thanked me for my letter, he told me that you both of you knew already the facts of Ambrose’s death, that Signor Rainaldi had written to him sending copies of the death certificate and other particulars, and that you invited me here for a short visit until my plans were formed. Indeed, he suggested that I should go onto Pelyn after leaving you, which was very kind of him.”

“That was all he said?”

“Yes, it was quite a brief letter.”

“He said nothing about my having been away?”


“I see.” I felt myself grow hot, and she went on sitting there so calm and still, working at the piece of embroidery.

Then I said, “My godfather was correct in telling you that he and the servants learned of Ambrose’s death through Signor Rainaldi. But it was not so for me. You see, I learned of it in Florence, at the villa, from your servants.”

She lifted her head and looked at me; and this time there were no tears in her eyes, no hint of laughter either; the gaze was long and searching and it seemed to me I read in her eyes both compassion and reproach.