فصل 07

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فصل 07

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CHAPTER SEVEN

A Strange Conversation

The following day was Saturday. I paid the men their wages, as Ambrose had always done. But Tamlyn, the head gardener, was not there. I was told that he was in the gardens somewhere, with the mistress.

I found them putting new plants into the ground.

‘I’ve been here since half past ten,’ my cousin Rachel said with a smile. ‘These are some of the plants Ambrose and I found in Italy. I had to put them into the ground quickly. Tamlyn has been helping me.’

‘And I’ve learnt a lot of things this morning, Mr Philip,’ Tamlyn said. ‘Mrs Ashley knows far more about these plants than I do.’

After lunch, I took my cousin Rachel around the estate. She sat on a quiet horse and I walked beside her. She wore a black dress and a black shawl round her head. She looked very proud and very Italian - not like an Englishwoman at all.

To my surprise, my cousin Rachel knew the name of every field and farm on the estate. As I walked by her side, we began to talk about the gardens of my cousin Rachel’s villa.

‘When I was married to my first husband,’ she said, ‘I was not happy. So I spent my time planning the gardens of the Villa Sangalletti. I would like you to see them, Philip.’

I looked up in surprise. Didn’t my cousin Rachel know that I had been to Florence and seen the villa? I thought my godfather had told her in his letter. I began to speak, but the horse moved on and it was too late. I was very quiet on the way home.

After dinner, we sat down together by the library fire. My cousin Rachel was sewing. I smoked my pipe and watched her hands moving quickly. They were small, white hands and she wore two rings on her fingers.

‘Something is the matter, Philip,’ she said at last. ‘What is worrying you?’

‘Did my godfather tell you I had been away?’

‘No.’

‘I didn’t hear of Ambrose’s death from Signor Rainaldi’s letter,’ I said slowly. ‘I found out about it in Florence, from your servants.’

My cousin Rachel gave me a long, strange look.

‘You went to Florence?’ she said. ‘When? For how long?’

‘I was in Florence for only one night - the night of the 15th of August,’ I said.

The sewing fell from my cousin Rachel’s hands.

‘But I left Florence only the day before. Why didn’t you tell me this last night?’

‘I thought you knew,’ I answered awkwardly.

‘I want you to tell me why you went to Italy, Philip,’ my cousin Rachel said.

I put my hand in my pocket and felt the letters there.

‘I had not heard from Ambrose for a long time,’ I said. ‘As the weeks went by, I grew worried. Then in July, a letter came, a very strange letter. I showed it to Nick Kendall. He agreed that I should go to Florence at once. As I was leaving, there was another letter. I have them both in my pocket. Do you want to see them?’

‘Not yet. Tell me what you did in Florence.’

‘I went to the Villa Sangalletti. When I asked for Ambrose, the servants told me he was dead. You had gone away. They showed me the room where Ambrose had died and gave me his hat. It was the only thing you had left behind.’

My cousin Rachel sat very still.

‘Go on,’ she said quietly.

‘I went back to Florence, to Signor Rainaldi. He told me about Ambrose’s illness. He did not know where you were. I left for England the following day.’

There was silence and then my cousin Rachel said, ‘May I see the letters now?’

She read them over and over again. At last, she handed them back.

Then my cousin Rachel looked deep into my eyes.

‘How you must have hated me, Philip,’ she said.

At that moment, I felt that my cousin Rachel knew everything. She knew everything I had been thinking about her, all these months.

‘Yes, I have hated you,’ I said slowly.

‘Then why did you ask me here?’

‘To accuse you of breaking his heart, perhaps - a kind of murder. I wanted to make you suffer, to watch you suffer.’

‘You have your wish,’ she said. Her face was very white and her dark eyes were full of tears.

I stood up and looked away. I had never seen a woman cry before.

‘Cousin Rachel, go upstairs,’ I said. But she did not move. I took the letters from her hands and threw them in the fire.

‘I can forget,’ I said, ‘if you will too. Look, the letters have burnt away.’

‘We can both remember what Ambrose wrote,’ my cousin Rachel replied. ‘But it’s better if I say nothing more. I cannot explain. Let me stay until Monday. Then I will go away. Then you can either forget me, or go on hating me. At least we were happy today, Philip.’

‘But I do not hate you now,’ I said. ‘I hated someone I had never met. Even before those letters came, I hated Ambrose’s wife because I was jealous. Ambrose is the only person I have ever loved. You took him away from me and I was jealous of you. Love can do strange things to people.’

‘I know that,’ my cousin Rachel answered. ‘Love did strange things to Ambrose too. He was forty-three when we met and he fell in love. He was like someone who had been asleep all his life. His love was too strong. It was too strong for me and too strong for him. It changed him, Philip.’

‘What do you mean?’ I asked.

‘Something in me made Ambrose change,’ she replied. ‘Sometimes I made him happy, sometimes I made him sad. Then he became ill. You were right to hate me, Philip. If Ambrose hadn’t met me he would be alive today.’

She looked at me and smiled sadly.

‘Perhaps I was jealous of you too, Philip,’ she said. ‘He was always talking about you. Sometimes I grew very tired of hearing your name.’

She stopped talking and picked up her sewing. ‘If you wish, we can talk again tomorrow,’ my cousin Rachel said. ‘Then, on Monday, I shall leave. Nick Kendall has invited me to stay in his house.’

‘But I don’t want you to go,’ I said. ‘There are so many things to do together…’

As I looked down at her, her eyes seemed to see through me and understand all my thoughts.

‘Light me a candle,’ she said. ‘I must go to bed.’

Then she stood above me on the stairs, looking down at me.

‘You don’t hate me anymore?’ she asked.

‘No. And are you still jealous of me, or is that forgotten too?’

My cousin Rachel laughed. ‘I was never jealous of you,’ she said. ‘I was jealous of a spoilt boy whom I had never met.’ Suddenly she bent down and kissed me. ‘Your first kiss, Philip,’ she said. ‘I hope you like it.’ I watched her as she walked up the stairs, away from me.

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