Philip arrives in Florence, Italy, on August 15. He is anxious to reach Ambrose, and finds himself disgusted by the scenery, as though his “anxiety turned to loathing of all things alien, even of the very soil itself.” On alighting from his carriage, Philip goes to stand by the river Arno. There he is approached by a young beggar woman; her appearance strikes Philip as haunting, as though “centuries in time looked out from those two eyes, [as if] she had contemplated life so long it had become indifferent to her.”
Philip’s strong attachment to home, when combined with his worry for Ambrose, results in a strong antipathy to things he considers “alien.” Philip will go on to express a similar aversion to Rachel, due to what he sees as her “foreignness”—even after he has fallen in love with her. This passage powerfully illustrates the insularity, even the viciousness of Philip’s understanding of home. The appearance of the beggar girl is significant because she will return to Philip in visions. He will ultimately conflate Rachel with the beggar woman, which suggests that Philip is deeply unsettled by the power of women, which he interprets as strangely eternal and untouchable.
Philip bathes at a hostel and then hails a carriage to take him to the Villa Sangaletti. When he arrives, he finds the villa eerily deserted; finally, a peasant woman responds to Philip ringing the bell at the front gate. When Philip asks for Signor Ashley, the woman fetches her husband (Giuseppe), who speaks English. Giuseppe tells Philip that Ambrose died suddenly three weeks ago. Upon Ambrose’s death, Rachel “shut up the villa […and] went away.” Rachel has been gone for two weeks, and Giuseppe does not know if she plans to return.
This scene is important because it is the first Philip has heard of Ambrose’s death. Philip’s emotional reaction to the Villa Sangaletti is also noteworthy: like the city of Florence itself, Philip finds the physical setting of the villa off-putting. This contrasts with the profound sense of comfort and joy that Philip derives from his home in Cornwall, and emphasizes—before Philip or the reader meet her—that Rachel might as well be from another planet than Philip.
The news of Ambrose’s death makes Philip feel numb. Giuseppe takes Philip through the villa, followed by Giuseppe’s wife and their child. He shows Philip a courtyard with a fountain where Ambrose used to sit with Rachel in the evenings to “take their tisana” (a type of herbal tea). Philip, still in shock, looks on as Giuseppe’s wife begins to sweep the courtyard of laburnum pods, which have fallen from a tree overlooking the fountain.
This passage introduces two important “clues” about Rachel’s role in Ambrose’s death. Both the laburnum seeds and the tisane (tea) that Rachel prepares will be central to Philip’s investigation of Rachel’s guilt later in the novel. Du Maurier shows the reader these two plot elements early on, and then deftly weaves them back into the story in later chapters.
Giuseppe asks if Philip would like to see the room where Ambrose died; Philip agrees. The room is “plain and bare like a monk’s cell,” with a statue of the Madonna in one corner. Giuseppe explains that Ambrose became ill very suddenly, and experienced a fever accompanied by violent fits. Giuseppe says that “it was pitiful […] to see so large a man helpless.”
Like the beggar woman by the river, the Madonna statue holds an important symbolic link to Rachel. When he finally comes to know her, Philip attributes a kind of suffering to Rachel that both the beggar woman and the Virgin Mary seem to share. Philip’s image of Rachel as helpless and suffering ultimately makes it hard for him to believe that she could have had the agency to kill Ambrose. By emphasizing the fact that Philip tries to understand Rachel using rigid “types” of women, du Maurier once again shows how blind people can be to the specific nuances of people they know.
Giuseppe takes Philip out onto a terrace and describes how beautiful the villa and its gardens are “on a still evening.” He mentions that “Signor Rainaldi told us that the villa is to be let, possibly sold.” Philip asks who Rainaldi is, and Giuseppe replies that “he arrange[s] all things for the contessa […] matters of business, matters of money, many things.” Philip insists that he wants to meet Rainaldi, and Giuseppe agrees to provide Rainaldi’s address.
Signor Rainaldi will become an important character because he will challenge both Ambrose and Philip’s trust of Rachel. Though Rachel consistently claims that her relationship to Rainaldi is platonic, Ambrose and Philip both ultimately come to suspect Rachel and Rainaldi of having an affair. This further emphasizes how distrustful the male characters are of Rachel’s confident sexuality, even as they find it alluring.
As they walk back through the villa, Philip gives Giuseppe some money and thanks him. When Philip asks what has been done with Ambrose’s belongings, Giuseppe’s wife (with her husband as translator) explains that Rachel took all of Ambrose’s things with her when she left. Giuseppe adds that all that is known of Rachel’s location is that she has left Florence. He also kindly offers the knowledge that Ambrose was buried in a Protestant cemetery in Florence. “Many English buried there,” he says. “Signor Ashley, he is not alone.”
Though a minor character, Giuseppe plays an important thematic role because he underscores the vital importance of belonging. Philip feels kindly toward him because he demonstrates an understanding of how deeply English Ambrose and Philip both feel. When Giuseppe says Ambrose is “not alone,” he means that Ambrose is buried with his own people. Giuseppe’s character thus serves to emphasize how important Englishness is to the Ashley men—a value that will ultimately prove incompatible with Rachel’s distinct Italian identity.
As Philip leaves the villa, Giuseppe’s wife runs into their home and returns with Ambrose’s hat, the one thing Rachel left behind. Philip silently turns it over in his hands, reflecting that it is too big for any man besides Ambrose to wear.
Philip comments on the fact that Ambrose’s hat is too large for any other man, including him, to wear. This suggests that, even though Philip has always wanted to be like his older cousin, he is self-conscious about his shortcomings. This will affect Philip’s relationship with Rachel, as he attempts to metaphorically fill Ambrose’s shoes (or hat) with regard to his widow.