Actions

Work Header

Songe d'Automne

Work Text:

Songe d'Automne

Last night I dreamed I went to Monte Carlo again. At first it seemed to me that I looked down upon the city from a great height, and from my lofty vantage point I could see the bright southern sunlight glinting off the blue-green waters of the Mediterranean. I saw the yachts in the harbour with their gleaming brass fittings and their snapping pennants, the twisting cobbled streets through which I had once sped on the wings of Mercury with my Gentleman Unknown past a crooked house with a slit-like window high up beneath the tumbled roof on a day when the wind had been too gusty for sketching.

Upon a closer look, it had all changed, somehow. Instead of the understated elegance of Maxim's Duesenberg or Mrs. Van Hopper's Daimler, the cars that filled the streets were all outlandish creations of flashy chrome and jutting tailfins. The men on the sidewalks were hatless; the women too, and all of them spoke too fast.

Hotel Cote D'Azur is under new management now. The suite where I listened to endless dreary talk of bridge games and who planned to divorce whom, where I emptied ashtrays overflowing with lipstick-stained cigarette butts, has been broken up into smaller rooms. The room on the third floor where I sat watching Maxim shave on the morning before everything changed has also been redone to the tastes of a more modern age.

I wonder what my life would be like if he had been a day later returning from Cannes? I almost certainly would have gone to New York with Mrs. Van Hopper. Would I, as Mrs. Van Hopper had promised, have met a nice American boy my own age? Would I perhaps have married him and lived in places with names like Scarsdale and Levittown, raising a pack of ill-bred children who called me 'Mom' while he took the train to his job in advertising in the city? Would I be happier?

And what of Maxim? What would have become of him? For even if my dreadful employer had not thrust herself upon him in that hotel lobby in Monte Carlo, even if he had never laid eyes upon me, the lowly little 'friend of the bosom', the day was fast approaching when that ship would run aground in the cove off Manderley, bringing Je Reviens and her secrets back into the light. But for my fortuitous near-faint in a tiny inquest room in Lanyon, Maxim might now be lying in the De Winter crypt beside her sea-denuded bones. Surely, even in those sterner times, the authorities would have allowed the family of the condemned that small comfort.

No matter. The moving finger has writ and will not be called back. It has been many years since Maxim and I lived in hotels. The years of our exile passed slowly, but eventually the talk died down, along with certain souls whose continued existence might have inspired us to prolong our nomadic and anonymous life abroad. Mrs. Danvers, though technically cleared of any trouble with the law, found herself unable to obtain a new situation without a reference and carrying the lingering suspicions from the fire. She ended her life destitute, struck down by a double-decker bus in a crosswalk in front of her home for old-age pensioners. Jack Favell had already crashed his car not two years after the inquest and our little trip up to Barnet. He should have taken to heart Colonel Julyan's good advice that petrol and drink do not mix. And Ben, he of the wild eye and the winkles in the cove, had, one stormy morning, slipped upon the rocks and bashed his head as the tide was coming in. This last death I mourned, for he was a gentle soul in spite of his appearance, but, though he was loyal, one never knows what someone simple may let slip by accident. Or if he will be believed.

We rebuilt eventually, of course. One did not like to be so crass as to enquire of it while the ashes were still glowing, but Manderley was insured to the hilt. Frank Crawley was far too responsible for it to have been otherwise. Lloyds must have had a very bad year indeed, what with the ship in the cove and the great house, but the money existed to restore what the flames had taken.

Stone walls that have stood since the times of the Normans are hard to destroy, no matter what the malice behind the act, and the staff had been heroic in getting the truly irreplaceable treasures -- the Van Dykes and the Lelys -- to safety on the lawn. I'm afraid that the Raeburn portrait of Miss Caroline De Winter was not among the objects saved, but I have my own reasons for not minding that greatly. Perhaps old Frith had that in his thoughts when he left it until the last.

I suppose one might accuse us of a fatal vanity in raising the phoenix from the ashes, but as it turns out, while the Manderley estate with its home farm and tenants continued to be profitable under Frank's able stewardship during our years abroad, the great house itself was necessary to the economy of the area as an opportunity for employment and custom for the local tradesmen. Even the tourists who had come to tour the public rooms in the old days had given a boost to the merchants of Lanyon and Kerrith as they took their tea in the little shops and bought their brightly colored postal cards and souvenir chocolate boxes with images of Manderly on the covers. 

At least this is what Frank and I were able to argue to Maxim: that the money was better spent on the skilled stonemasons, carpenters and roof-slaters from as far away as Wales than it was left to fatten the already bulging coffers of the De Winter family. In this endeavor, we had help from Beatrice, who I know fretted to see her brother slipping back into his dark mood. Of the three of us, only Frank and I knew why Maxim felt he deserved to be punished. But if there is a place in hell for those who have done murder, there should be also for those who, out of love, condone it. There is no need for us to anticipate the judgment of the Almighty by making our own little hells here on earth.

There was yet another reason for the rebuilding of Manderley. My joyful news, so long awaited, proved the final weight to tip the balance of Maxim's indecision, for it would not have done at all for our son and heir to have no manor house to grow up in and to inherit in his turn. Francis, as we named him after his godfather, came too early in the rebuilding process to have his pram placed out beneath the chestnut tree, as had been threatened once before under far less happy circumstances, but he was able to toddle behind me in the rose garden while I dead-headed the old blossoms, just as his father had done half a century before.

By then, Julyan, whom we jokingly call our spare, had been born, and the rumbling of war from Europe had made us glad of our decision to return. I would have considered us complete, but several years later came our sweetest surprise, a daughter upon whom Maxim insisted bestowing my 'very lovely and unusual name'. There are two of us at Manderley now, and Rebecca -- I dare name her at long last -- is usurped, forgotten.

Perhaps it was the maturity that an extra decade brings, perhaps it was the steadying influence of motherhood, but I had learnt not to torture myself with daydreams, play-acted out inside my head, of the people around me discussing my every deficiency. With those foolish visions gone I could at last see our neighbors for whom they really were and find the kindness within their eyes. I recall upon our return, Colonel Julyan, who of all of them worried me the most, because Maxim said he knew more than he let on, taking Maxim's hand and saying, "It's good to have you home again, De Winter. Very good indeed." 

Even Lady Crowan, who, in the arrogance of my youth, I had dismissed as insufferably tiresome, I could see as a poor soul whose husband drank too much and kept a mistress in Lanyon. What matter if she needed to bolster her own importance by crediting herself with things that were not indeed her doing? I told her as much when Maxim and I revived the Manderley fancy dress ball in honor of the War's end. "It never would have occurred to me to do it, Lady Crowan, had I not remembered how you suggested it before."

It was nowhere near so grand an affair as my first, what with all our costumes thrown together from rationed stuff, and the refreshments were simple fare from the home farm, but for this one time Maxim indulged me by wearing black, with lace from an old trunk at his throat and wrists, and a rapier at his side. I was got up in a blue hair ribbon and a pinafore as Alice in Wonderland, a ridiculous costume for a mother of three, but it made him laugh, and we held hands from time to time as we greeted our guests.

I saw the raise of his eyebrow as he overheard my remark to Lady Crowan, but I responded only with a subtle shake of my head. I did not view her with pity, but merely the understanding that we are all of us human, with secret sorrows and fears. The older I get the more I realize that people are not such fools as I had thought, and my worry that they were comparing me to Rebecca was the truth and not such a bad thing after all.

And I am becoming very old indeed. As I once predicted, my mouse-brown hair has turned grey, and I leave it uncoloured to be more of a match with my husband. We have come beyond the storms of passion, Maxim and I, into a harbour of calm. The twenty-one years' difference between has become less of a gulf as time passes. Maxim has aged well for a man of his years, and his only concession is to allow me to place a rug about his shoulders when we sit together on the terrace on an autumn afternoon, he with his newspaper and I with my knitting.

Francis (never Frank, like the godfather he helps so ably with the running of the estate now that Maxim has slowed) has married, and he and his wife inhabit the west wing. The west wing took the worst of the damage, as if the blaze had started there as a tiny flame from an upturned candle, feasting hungrily on the gowns and furs and the golden coverlet embroidered with R de W, burning away the taint. All of the rooms -- the long drawing room, the morning room, and the suites above -- were gutted, and several of the walls had to be knocked down and rebuilt. The rooms exist more or less as they were, but subtly changed in proportion and color, filled with whatever treasures we could salvage or hunt down anew. The morning room especially is changed. The windows still look out upon a tiny clearing of lawn where a little stone faun dances and plays his flute. By a miracle, he survived the fire and I decided to keep him as a reminder to myself of days long gone, but the rhododendrons are chastened, kept pruned by the gardeners, and they are no longer allowed into a room whose new colors they do not suit. The room is mine now, mine and my daughter-in-law's, and we do our writing at a long wooden table made of gleaming mahogany. The desk, with its labeled pigeon-holes, is burnt to ashes, long ago dispersed on the wind from the bay. 

Maxim and I still have our old suite in the east wing, the only change, other than the new draperies to replace the smoke-ruined ones, is the double bed I insisted upon to replace the two narrow singles originally chosen for us by Mrs. Danvers. I am content there. I no longer covet the larger rooms and the sound of the sea.

Julyan has a law practice up in London, and he is courting a lovely girl. Our daughter, who of all of them most takes after Maxim, with her dark hair, her height, and handsome looks, rather like a young Beatrice, is up at Oxford, earning the last of her graduate degree in medieval art. She says she has no plans to marry, and from the look of her flat mate, another athletic young woman given to the wearing of tweeds and sensible shoes, I rather think she is right.

I think of Rebecca only rarely, and when I do it is with an understanding that may never quite reach compassion. One day, while I was walking the path up from the cove with a distant successor to Jasper, the spaniel sniffed something on the breeze and bounded into the undergrowth. There, he turned up a small metal trap that held within its teeth a bit of rotted flesh with tags of russet fur still clinging. A fox, caught in the cruel jaws, had gnawed off his -- or her -- leg to get free.

I don't know why, but it put me in mind of Rebecca, and of my own daughter too. Beauty, brains and breeding come with a price, and certain high expectations. What will people do to get free? Had Rebecca been driven as mad as that poor vixen by the end?

The sight brought tears to my eyes, and I was glad that I was alone that day, with no one else there to see it. Poachers had left the trap, and I had Frank put a stop to it at once. Dear Frank. He is aging too, but he will always have a place here with us at Manderley, even after he steps down from his task of taking care of us.

I must be made of different stuff, because I have never felt trapped in my life here, other than during that ghastly period of time when Maxim had forced the dirty business with Jack Favell to its crisis and I felt certain he must be destined for the hangman's noose. A balance shifted between the two of us that night when I held and comforted a walking dead man in my arms. I suppose it is the only true victory Rebecca shall ever have, because my young gauche self died then, the one that Maxim had fallen in love with. In a way, I mourn her too, and I miss that comfortable feeling of having a father-protector.

"What ever were you thinking about, my little love? You looked so far away."

Maxim's voice brings my thoughts up short, and I look over to see him regarding me over the edges of his paper, his white hair lifting gently in the wind off the bay, the small frown line between his eyes no longer, alas, gossamer-fleeting but deeply etched by the years.

I manage a smile. "Nothing, Maxim. I was merely wondering if they had chosen the Surrey side to play Middlesex at the Oval."

He pauses for a while and then nods. "Whatever you say, darling." In years past, this would have been the time when he would have reached for the inevitable cigarette. Thank goodness I made him give up the habit before Francis was born.

I notice that my absent-mindedness has made me drop a stitch. I bite my lip and bend to rectify my mistake. Do I really need so many jumpers? Not really, but knitting provides me with something to do with my hands while we sit.

When I glance back up, I notice Maxim still watching me, and I know in my heart that he is searching my face for an absolution. He had it years ago, would he but believe it. I have never been the problem. It is he who must forgive himself.

'I believe,' Maxim had told me during that all too brief period between Dr. Baker's revelation and our arrival home to the ashes of Manderley, that time when in the naivety of youth I thought we might have escaped whole, 'that Rebecca lied to me. She wanted me to kill her.' Oh, Maxim, what an understatement that was! Had it not been for the mischance of Jack Favell being delayed by one of his endless drunken parties, he would have arrived, at her behest, at the cottage in the cove just in time to discover Maxim wiping the last of her blood from the floor. I know in my woman's heart that she meant to take Maxim with her into death in the most degrading way possible. Her last practical joke, indeed!

It occurs to me now, the reason I dreamt of Monte Carlo last night, of that cliff overlooking the green-blue Mediterranean where I first saw Maxim's haunted look. It was no accident that Rebecca, always methodical in life, chose that spot to reveal her sordid secret self to him. One push, one slip, was all it would have taken. She had been courting death at his hand for many years.

Was her disappointment in him, for surely she would have seen his inaction as a sign of weakness, the basis for her unrelenting malice toward him in their subsequent years? The idea holds a queer sort of logic. And yet . . .

And yet . . . my thoughts are now in two places at once: Maxim and Rebecca on that lonely high place above the sea near Monte Carlo; Maxim in the library at Manderley, with me kneeling at his feet as he pours out his confession. What if things had gone differently? What if, instead of holding firm, I had drawn back from him in disgusted horror? 

We all of us need an absolution, especially from those we love, or, at the very least, understanding. Suppose that Maxim had seen in my eyes, instead of compassion, the unspoken charge of, 'Monster'? Might he not have been tempted to cloak the sting of rejection behind a mask of mocking scorn until thwarted love turned to genuine loathing? I shall never know.

Things would not have changed outwardly, of course, for I was resolved to keep up the charade of being Maxim's wife to spare my public face at the expense of my private pride. One thing is certain: we would not now be the companionable elderly couple who sit on our rebuilt terrace waiting for our butler to announce that our tea is ready.

And speaking of our butler, here he is. "Will you be having your tea out here on the terrace, Madame, or shall I lay a table beneath the chestnut tree?" He addresses his question to me automatically now, rather than Maxim, for after all these years I am unquestionably the mistress here.

I cast a quick eye at Maxim, who looks chilly beneath his rug, despite his best efforts to hide it. "No. In the library today, Robert."

"Very good, Madame."

The fire did for poor old Frith, I'm afraid. He was too old to come out of retirement when Maxim and I returned from abroad, but Robert was more than eager to leave his current situation and step into his place for a chance to work at Manderley again. Robert -- I should really call him 'Llewellyn' to reflect the formality of his new position, because that is his surname, but he will always be Robert to me -- is the last of a dying breed in these modern times, punctilious to a fault. We are all of us dinosaurs, really. I recall the remark of the young woman sight-seer from Kerrith whom I met on the cliffs the day the ship ran aground, that her husband thought the big estates ought to be broken up and the woods turned into identical plots for identical bungalows. Perhaps that will be Manderley's fate some day, but not, at least, in this generation.

As Maxim rises stiffly to his feet, a footman appears to take charge of his rug. This is William, a fresh-faced ginger-haired young man training under the eagle eye of his grandfather. I let my mind travel down the years ahead to imagine William carrying a tray of whiskey and soda for Francis's children and then shake my head. Whether the future involves William in the library, or rows of soulless bungalows, Maxim and I will have joined Rebecca in the family crypt by then. It is no matter to me.

Maxim offers the crook of his arm for me to take. This is a conceit between the two of us, that it is he supporting me rather than the other way around. Stubbornly proud to the last, he will not use a cane, unlike Beatrice, who at least has a bad tumble from her hunter two months after her fiftieth birthday as an excuse.

"Shall we, my dear?" he asks. His voice betrays only the hint of an old man's quaver, not yet the querulous tone of his grandmother the day she mistook me for a stranger and demanded "Rebecca! What have you done with Rebecca?" but I know that day is coming soon enough.

There was a time, at the age of twenty-one, when I expressed the desire to put my callowness aside and be Maxim's mother rather than his child bride. I think on the old proverb, 'Be careful what you wish for; you might just get it.'

With a quick upward smile, I link my arm in Maxim's, and the two of us slowly cross the terrace to the open library doors. And, as ever when I re-enter my house, I brace my nostrils against the fleeting scent of ashes and white azalea.