How soft and gentle her name sounds when I whisper it. It lingers on the tongue, insidious and slow, almost like poison, which is apt indeed. It passes from the tongue to the parched lips, and from the lips back to the heart. And the heart controls the body, and the mind also. Shall I be free of it one day? In forty, in fifty years? […] Perhaps, when all is said and done, I shall have no wish to be free. As yet, I cannot tell.
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 […] But, unlike a soldier, I would never have to give up my command. It was mine for life.
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.
Somewhere there was a bitter creature, crabbed and old, hemmed about with lawyers; somewhere a larger Mrs. Pascoe, loud-voiced, arrogant; somewhere a petulant spoilt 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 humour and small hands?
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 because the eyes are the same colour and they belong to the same race. Otherwise they could have nothing in common, the beggar woman beside the Arno and my cousin Rachel.
I looked up, startled, and it seemed to me, as we stared at one another, that she knew now all my fantasies, my dreams, that she saw one by one the faces of the women I had conjured all those months. Denial was no use, protestation absurd. The barriers were down. It was a queer feeling, as though I sat naked in my chair.
“Not unremarkable,” said Mr. Pascoe, flipping the head of a hortensia with his cane, “certainly not unremarkable. Nor would I say, as the girls do, beautiful. But feminine, that is the word, most decidedly feminine.”
“Ambrose was wrong in what he said of women,” I shouted. “At half-past eight in the morning they look very well indeed.”
“Ambrose was not referring to half-past eight,” she called back to me; “he was referring to half-past six, and he did not mean downstairs.”
The voice, so near to tears again, did something to me. A kind of tightness came to my throat and to my belly.
“I would much rather that you hit me,” I told her, “than that you cried.”
“There is a tisana for that too,” she said, “made from the leaves of raspberries and of nettles. If a woman drinks that for six months before the birth, she has her baby without pain.”
“That’s witchcraft,” I said. “They wouldn’t think it right to do so.”
“What nonsense! Why should women suffer?” said my cousin Rachel.
I hoped she had not noticed—I had barely noticed it myself—that for the first time I had not called her cousin, but Rachel. I don’t know how it happened. I think it must have been because standing there, with my arms about her, she had been so much smaller than myself.
I felt strangely moved, as if all that I did and said was laid down for me and planned, while at the same time a small still voice whispered to me in some dark cell of matter, “You can never go back upon this moment. Never… Never…”
She would take great care about her person, when she went calling. Her best mantle, and her new veil and bonnet. I would sit with my back to the horses, in the carriage, so that I could look at her; and, I think to tease me, she would not lift her veil.
Her shoulders were bare. She had dressed her hair higher than usual, the roll of it was looped up and drawn back, showing her ears. Around her neck was the collar of pearls. It was the only piece of jewellery [sic] upon her person. It glowed soft and white against her skin. I had never seen her look so radiant, or so happy. Louise and the Pascoes had been right after all. Rachel was beautiful.
Then she kissed me. Not as she had done before. And as I stood there, holding her, I thought to myself, “It was not yearning for home, nor sickness of the blood, nor fever of the brain—but for this, that Ambrose died.”
And I could see them sitting on the terrace of the villa, with this strange shadow between them, built out of nothing but their own doubts and fears, and it seemed to me that the seeds of this same shadow went back beyond all reckoning and could never more be traced.
She lifted her veil, and the eyes that looked into mine were not smiling as I had hoped, or tearful as I had feared, but steady and serene and quite unmoved, the eyes of someone who has been out upon a matter of business and settled it to satisfaction.
For no great reason I felt blank, and in some sense cheated. I wanted the eyes to be as I remember them at sunrise.
She did not answer. She went on looking at me, incredulous, baffled, like someone listening to words in a foreign language that cannot be translated or comprehended […] She had not understood what it was I asked of her at midnight, nor I, in my blind wonder, what she had given, therefore what I had believed to be a pledge of love was something different, without meaning, on which she had put her own interpretation.
I tried to think what else I had to give. She had the property, the money, and the jewels. She had my mind, my body, and my heart. There was only my name, and that she bore already. Nothing remained. Unless it should be fear. I took the candle from her hand and placed it on the ledge, above the stairs. I put my hands about her throat, encircling it; and now she could not move, but watched me, her eyes wide. And it was as though I held a frightened bird in my two hands, which, with added pressure, would flutter awhile, and die, and with release would fly away to freedom.
I went to my room, and catching sight of my reflection in the mirror paused, and stared. Surely it was Ambrose who stood there, with the sweat upon his forehead, the face drained of all colour? Then I moved and was myself again; with stooping shoulders, limbs that were clumsy and too long, hesitant, untutored, the Philip who had indulged in school-boy folly.
I could not believe it possible that a girl I knew and trusted could have so damnable a mind, and speak—that was the greatest hell—with so much logic and plain common sense, to tear apart another woman like herself.
“Is it your father’s legal mind speaking in you, or you yourself?” I said to her.
“Not my father,” she said; “you know his reserve. He has said little to me. I have a judgement [sic] of my own.”
So we had come to battle. Her words were a challenge that I could not meet. Her woman’s brain worked differently from mine. All argument was fair, all blows were foul. Physical strength alone disarmed a woman.
Then, tears coming to her eyes, she looked at me and said, “A woman can’t suffer twice. I have had all this before.” And lifting her fingers to her throat she added, “Even the hands around my neck. That too. Now will you understand?”
I looked over her head, straight at the portrait above the mantelpiece, and the young face of Ambrose staring at me was my own. She had defeated both of us.
As I lay there in the darkness I was not aware of danger, or of fear. Only compassion. I saw her as someone not responsible for what she did, besmirched by evil. Compelled and driven by the man who had power over her, lacking, through fault of circumstance and birth, in some deep moral sense, she was capable by instinct and by impulse of this final act. I wanted to save her from herself, and knew not how.
I had held it many times, in love, before. Felt the small size of it, turned the rings upon the fingers, seen the blue veins upon the back, touched the small close-filed nails. Now, as it rested in my hand, I saw it, for the first time, put to another purpose. I saw it take the laburnum pods, in deft fashion, and empty out the seeds […] I remembered once I had told her that her hands were beautiful, and she had answered, with a laugh, that I was the first to tell her so. “They have their uses,” she said. “Ambrose used to say, when I was gardening, that they were workmen’s hands.”
Now, no part of her was strange. I knew the best, I knew the worst. Even the motives for all she did, baffling perhaps even to herself, I guessed them too. She hid nothing for me now, Rachel my torment…
Her head was turned to him as she listened, so that from the head of the table, where I sat, I looked on her in profile. She was always a stranger, thus. Those neat clipped features on a coin. Dark and withdrawn, a foreign woman standing in a doorway, a shawl about her head, her hand outstretched. But full-face, when she smiled, a stranger never. The Rachel that I knew, that I had loved.