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Je reviens

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At Monte Carlo that year the quarry was a Mrs. Maxim de Winter—a widowed Englishwoman, wealthy, young, and mysterious; it was said that she had come seeking refuge from the unwanted attentions of her country’s newspapers. Mrs. Van Hopper, immediately overcome with interest, had gone out of her way to secure lodgings in the same hotel which the de Winters had frequented during their marriage, and spent the first days of our stay ostentatiously watching the passing crowds through her lorgnette.

But the scheme came to nothing after all, there had been some misunderstanding, and Mrs. de Winter did not come. I heard all about it from Mrs. Van Hopper, who was too distraught in the aftermath to tolerate any other topic of conversation for long. The worst of it, as I was informed again and again, was that Mrs. Van Hopper had gone out of her way to secure a table next to the one always used by the de Winters; mealtimes were a trial for both of us, the lost quarry was never far from her mind. Such was Mrs. Van Hopper’s grief that the son of an American car manufacturer was able to visit the dining room for almost a week before she could bear to rouse herself into pursuit.

Usually I felt no interest whatsoever in Mrs. Van Hopper’s targets. Mrs. de Winter, for whatever reason, was the exception—not because of her notoriety, but because I was an artist, and for whatever reason became interested in trying to draw her from the photographs Mrs. Van Hopper had me clip from the newspapers. My sketchbook filled with the attempts, and while there was no one for me to hide the pictures from, I still hid them guiltily, and never left the suite without hiding the book behind a pillow or in my suitcase.

I tried to convince myself that to be fascinated by a beautiful face was respectable enough, if the person fascinated was an artist, and did not quite succeed—but she was indeed very beautiful. She had a very white, lovely face, with an almost carven look, it was so delicate, that was framed by the dark, carefully-dressed mane around it. To me she looked just like a jewel, with the beauty coming both from nature and from the jeweler’s art. I liked to draw her because of that face, but there were a hundred women in the same papers with features equally as perfect, and I had little enough interest in any of them.

Unlike Mrs. Van Hopper, I had no interest in meeting her, and unlike Mrs. Van Hopper, I did; I ran across her accidently, after Mrs. Van Hopper had been scheming unsuccessfully for weeks.

A few weeks into our stay Mrs. Van Hopper contracted a mild cold, and dramatically retired to her bed. This was a great relief to us both: her illness, which was not severe in its symptoms, made for her a briefly interesting diversion, and directed a pleasing amount of attention and worry in her direction. For my own part, I was sent to the hotel restaurant while she rested, to eat by myself for almost the first time since my employment. Lacking a book to hand, I brought along my sketchbook.

I had been kept late enough that with Mrs. de Winter’s arrival, a few minutes after mine, there were only two seats filled; she was seated at the table besides ours, as Mrs. Van Hopper had always known she would. I did not recognize her at first, since it did not occur to me to think that she lived outside of newsprint. When I realized who she was I goggled embarrassingly, like a vaudeville comedian, and suppressed a panicked impulse to leave immediately. The two tables were close enough that we would be forced to speak to each other, for the sake of civility if nothing else— or we would not speak, and I would feel the strain of not looking towards her while seeming to be quite natural.

I did not have to wait long; she turned to me casually and said, “Do I recognize you— I do, of course; you must be the girl traveling with Mrs. Van Hopper of New York, my erstwhile acquaintance.”

Her tone was light, conversational, and hit me with the force of a blow. Mrs. Van Hopper had indeed been trying without tact to wrangle an introduction, but I had not known that the campaign had reached the attention of its target.

I flushed, and stammered out a response to the effect that I had not known that she was friendly with my employer.

“Oh, yes,” Mrs. de Winter said, though we both knew otherwise. “I must confess, I was not aware either— but after a full month of her telegrams reminding me, I find I must revise myself.”

Here she paused—expecting, I suppose, that I would rise in defense of my mistress, and give her material for another barb. Instead she looked at my face, and then changed the subject. It was not characteristic for Mrs. de Winter to be merciful; my stricken face must have made it obvious just how uninteresting I would be to make a game out of.

That was the first time I ever saw how easy blood sport came to her, and I never forgot it, despite how cordially she spoke to me afterwards. She was not a comfortable partner for conversation in any case, though her attitude now was a good imitation of a solicitous aunt. There was an odd cadence to her words which destroyed any sense of security that her cozy questions might have engendered—something a little exaggerated, in both her cruelty and her kindness, as though she was mocking us both.

“I don’t believe that you don’t sail— there is no other way to pass the time— tell me, what do you do with yourself?” I heard her, and immediately forgot whether I had ever done anything which brought me pleasure in my life; luckily I had put my sketchbook on the table, and could point it out as evidence that I had some kind of inner life.

“Watercolor?” she asked. “Or, pencils, oils, crayon…”

“Any, if I have the time or money; for now mostly pencils.”

Mrs. de Winter nodded seriously, as if that absurdity had pleased her, and then casually reached and took up my sketchbook. Her arm was long, gloved, assured, and very elegant; I was too shocked to say anything in response, or to stop her from opening it.

Of course she would see that I had drawn her—I had no hope of anything else. But I was lucky in the one she opened the book to. It was a fanciful picture, of a lioness with Mrs. de Winter’s face: a little, crudely drawn thing, and yet somehow immediately recognizable as the woman beside me.

I think that she was flattered by it. After that she was almost natural: the conversation, which she still led and which I struggled to follow her in, seemed more like a dialogue, and less like an imitation of one.

“You have a beautiful name,” she told me. “It makes me jealous as a child— my own name is very Biblical. I shall have to think of something else to call you. Betty, perhaps, or Flora.”

I smiled uncertainly. The food arrived: a delicate-looking soup for her, and for me a sad, brownish meat of indeterminate origin. I would not have dared to say anything against it, had Mrs. de Winter not done so first.

“That is why I avoid even the best hotels,” she said, delicately contemptuous, and then offered her own meal to me. I did not want it: the thought of putting her to trouble was an awful one. She insisted, lifting the bowl herself, but somehow the perfect hand was jogged, sending soup over the pristine tablecloth.

“Don’t jump up— there is no trouble. No, don’t bother to call any of the servers over. Nasty creatures! Here, we’ll solve it between ourselves: you’ll take my seat, and we won’t risk any more spillage.”

The soup proved itself to be worthy of being made for her. She had been very generous, though when I caught the contemptuous glance of a passing waiter I realized that it looked as if I had been the one to make a mess out of the crisp white tablecloth.

“Don’t think I’m being kind,” she said suddenly. “I’m not at all hungry—I only wanted an excuse to sit at this table again. My husband and I came here together once, years ago.”

I did know that; for once the education Mrs. Van Hopper had given me proved to be for some purpose. Mrs. de Winter’s face was unexpectedly tense, her fingers tapping at the tablecloth. She wanted to speak to someone who would not be unduly interested, and I looked deferential enough to suffice.

“He died, you know,” she said, giving a little ironic look in my direction on the last word. Of course, she must have been very used to every stranger she met knowing her life story. “I am going back to every place we ever went together—not out of sentiment, you understand; only so that I can keep the lovely images, and take him out of them. I only just returned from the hills—we drove there together. I went to one particular spot and read an American detective novel for an hour. It was very bad, I thought, but when I remember the place now that’s what I’ll think of.”

I mumbled my condolences, since that seemed to be what the occasion called for; it did not seem to be the appropriate time for soup, and so I put down my spoon—clumsily, so that it clattered.

“And now you have a story to carry away with you, if you wish,” she said, “all about that wretched, scandalous woman, Mrs. Maxim de Winter. I suppose you think that you know all about it. Tell me—what do you know about Manderley? Because that is the entire story.”

She spoke as if she expected me to be cowed into silence, and I expected the same thing. I was a little shocked to find that I enjoyed listening to her; it gave me a dizzy, overwhelmed feeling, that I imagined belonged properly to men who had climbed Mount Everest. I had an answer to her question, one which I was anxious to give her.

“I bought a postcard of it from a shop when I was a child,” I said, speaking quickly; I was afraid of losing her attention, or else fainting. “I had to ask the clerk what the picture was of, but I loved it—from the first moment I saw it.”

It occurred to me that she might think this impertinent, but she said intently when I paused: “And did you ever go there?”

“No, never,” I said breathlessly.

For the first time I saw her smile, which was wide and self-deprecating, and entirely unlike the sedate expressions that the newspapers had printed besides their most unflattering stories. I was in love with that smile; I wanted to open my sketchbook at once and begin work to preserve it.

“Lucky girl!” Mrs. de Winter said softly, looking directly at me. “Imagine—to have never seen Manderley, and never to have left it!”

She was very far away from me, though if I had dared I might have reached out and touched her. I was fascinated by her unreasonably, despite her unkind attitude towards me, and her actress’s way of speaking, which seemed so odd in a casual conversation.

“My husband’s sister has made me into an exile,” she went on. “Poor, stupid Beatrice, she believes whatever she reads in the newspapers. The will was able to be disputed, and she thought that it was in service of her family’s honor to dispute it. It wouldn’t have done me any good to stay in the headlines any longer than I had to—and so I left, like a good little girl. And I loved Manderley so much—none of the family had ever done as much for it as I did. It would have been mine, if—“

She broke off abruptly, and then looked at me again, the gesture like a challenge. Well, will you ask? those splendid eyes said, and it took all my will to keep myself from blinking, let alone speak.

“You would think that there would be some kind of suicide which would be easy on the wife,” she went on after a moment. “I suppose that would rather elide the point. And people do so love for there to be a mystery. There wasn’t one to begin with, of course—the newsmen wanted me for a villain, but they had to settle for our agent, the dullest little man you could imagine, and that didn’t satisfy anyone. Poor man—he wasn’t charged any more than I was, but his life was still quite ruined.”

It suited her to speak of herself: she was flushed, interested, passionate, far more so than when we had been discussing what kinds of paint I liked best. I was only half-listening to what she said, my mind was focused on the picture I would make of her later. Her summary of the case was a little inaccurate, but Mrs. Van Hopper’s rendition would of course have been more focused on the tawdry aspects.

It occurred to me that never in our conversation had she shown the least bit of sentiment towards her husband, but that was so uncharitable, and would do so much to disturb me if I allowed it to, that I pushed it aside quickly.

“Thank you for your patience with my recitation,” Mrs. de Winter was saying, and laughed a little. “I wonder how much I could find myself being paid for private showings. My life is duller now—I rarely go far beyond the harbor. Your turn now, I think. What will you do with your afternoon?”

I doubted that she was interested; she must only want a chance to sip at her drink. Soon she would make an excuse and leave, for her dramatic life and her boat and her American detective novel, and I would be left in her wake looking at the soiled tablecloth.

“I am going to spend the afternoon drawing,” I said, wondering whether I sounded self-important.

“Very wise,” Mrs. de Winter said indulgently. “Any subject in particular?”

It was to be her, of course, so I said quickly “Yes—a medieval portrait of a nobleman looking through a window. Look, I have a version of it here.” She took the sketchbook delicately, with both hands, and I barreled on recklessly. “I saw a picture like it once in a gallery. He’s to be dark and imposing, very masculine, but with a look like he’s accepting wrongs being done to him.”

Her expression when she looked up from the book was odd. I did not understand why until a few weeks later: most of the newspaper stories on Maxim de Winter’s death took the opportunity to print the face of his widow as often as possible, but one had used that of the deceased instead, and I had remembered it.

Perhaps she would have said something, if a harried-looking page had not arrived and said that Mrs. Van Hopper was looking for me. It was like Mrs. Van Hopper to do that—to sense when I was enjoying myself, and interfere with it.

Mrs. de Winter stood and gave back the sketchbook, again very normal. “How troublesome for you,” she said, in her light tone. “Poor Betty! Can you get away this afternoon?” I said quickly that I could. “You can visit me, if you like the thought of drawing me instead of a nobleman.”

I must have responded to this reasonably, but I don’t know how I managed it. She smiled, with a gently knowing expression, and turned back to her drink. I found myself in the hall before the elevators without quite knowing how I got there; when I looked down I found that I had pressed the nails of my right hand into my left wrist many times, hard enough to imprint rows upon rows of little red arches.

My idea was that I could settle Mrs. Van Hopper as quickly as I could, and then perhaps if I ran fast enough I could catch Mrs. de Winter in the lobby, and have my golden afternoon. Instead I found that Mrs. Van Hopper had gone ahead with her bridge party, though it was conducted around a sickbed, and expressions of concern for the hostess’s health had to be expressed every few minutes.

I fetched drinks and emptied cigarette trays, and overheard a group of idle, wealthy women chewing over tawdry gossip, as a herd of cows would chew at half-digested grass. They bored me now, when usually my reaction I felt almost sick with embarrassment and disgust. As entertainment I imagined the sensation made if I suddenly revealed how I spent my lunch, but the fantasy had staled by the second hour.

Not long after Mrs. Van Hopper said offhandedly that the room was out of ice, and that I might go into the hall and find more. I cannot explain what came over me when the door closed. I felt as though someone had grabbed for my hand, and then pulled—down the stairs, all at a run, though there were so many, and then out through the great lobby doors.

The brightness and heat of the air shocked me, it had been so long since I had been properly outside. How long would it take Mrs. Van Hopper to realize I was not returning? I decided that it depended on how urgently the ice had been needed. I pictured her indolent shrug, and then perhaps turning to compare notes with a friend on the inevitable ingratitude of charity cases. “It isn’t her fault, poor thing. I suppose she found herself a lover unexpectedly, and couldn’t bear to give up her chance…”

I shuddered and walked faster—unfair, perhaps, to blame her for what I only imagined her doing, but I had heard her speak similarly of others every day of my employment. Would she fear for my safety, when I failed to return? Somehow I could not believe it of her.

The walk to the pier was longer than I thought. I wished that I had brought my sketchbook. I might have used it for protection, or an excuse. I wondered if Mrs. de Winter remembered me at all, or if she had meant to invite me in the first place. I would present myself to her humbly, and I would say that I had come for—what?

The light that I walked in was softening with the end of the day. I should not have come at all, I thought; if I was so desperate for an escape, I should have pleaded a headache. But I would never have been allowed that as an excuse. I might still go back. What would I say to Mrs. de Winter? I lost the route, retraced it with difficulty, and then lost it again. All the streets were strange to me in the dimming light, and I half expected to look up and see my medieval gentleman through the old-fashioned windows.

But the harbor was easy enough to find; it was large enough. By this time all my exhilaration had left me. I felt like a child running away pettishly to join the circus—hot, and regretful, and too far along to imagine a way to go back. I might have, if I could find an excuse besides my own fear—being unable to find the boat, for example. But the boat was as easy to find as the harbor. It was the first one I saw, though it was far back, and there were a hundred others exactly like it.

On the pier was a steady stream of people, all moving very quickly, and all concerned with themselves and their boats. I walked in their midst as slowly and as correctly as I could, and if any of them noticed that I was out of place they did not say anything. At last I was beside the boat itself, and had to contrive a new method to waste time with. I looked at the boat’s side to read the name. “Je Reviens”: the name called our past conversation up to me, as perfume calls up the rose.

I looked at the waters I stood over, which were a green-black so dark in color that it reminded me of solid rock, and so opaque that I could imagine anything being below it. If I were to fall in, I thought, then the waters would keep me forever; I might struggle as I liked, but the great darkness would bear me down, to lie with the smoothed sea-stones and the hulls, long-lost, of ships just as ancient.

The thought made me shudder, almost convulsively, and for a moment I was convinced that I would go into the water. I might have done anything, in my panic—I might even have taken the initiative of calling out to whoever was aboard, if they had not called to me first, sharply: “Who are you? What are you doing?”

Relief swept through me. My savior was a woman in her early forties, in the severe clothes of an old-fashioned servant—the type of women I saw working as housekeeper or head maid in the great country houses I sometimes accompanied Mrs. Van Hopper to. She was not at all the kind of woman I expected to see aboard a boat.

In answering her, I was too excited to make much sense. She questioned me again, I tried to speak with more clarity; the process repeated itself several times. I began the conversation very humbly, and ended it feeling almost persecuted. Nothing about her softened, in her face or in the acute lines of her body. She treated me as a Roman matron would a barbarian invader.

“You received an invitation; I suppose you have brought it with you,” she was saying, and I wretchedly trying to piece together a reply, when we were interrupted.

Mrs. de Winter did remember me, and she did remember my invitation. Almost immediately I found myself on the boat’s deck, and the severe woman, Danny, dispatched to bring tea. The rocking of the boat was very hard to adjust to, though I tried to affect the pose of an experienced sailor. We spoke for a few moments casually, on the weather and so forth. Finally, as I had been dreading, she asked me what I wanted: I regretted my abandoned sketchbook even more keenly.

I had at least thought of an excuse, and now deployed it triumphantly, with all the conviction of a child convinced that it cannot be sent back to bed if the excuse is good enough. “I want to work for you,” I said, and found that I was rubbing at my hands convulsively.

“Really!” she said. I could not tell what she thought about it. “And why is that?”

I had a speech half-prepared, which I launched into grimly. Mrs. Van Hopper, my employer, was training me to be a paid companion, but she was so ill-bred that I was learning very little. Her company was very bad, and I did not like her. I was a hard-worker, and would be a credit—

I had not expected her to accept my offer, or even to consider it; I had not expected her to laugh. “I’m sorry,” she said immediately, as I trailed off, very hurt. “It’s only that there was nothing you could have said that would upset Danny more—she must have known somehow from the moment she saw you. She’s listening below, I suppose, and I will have to deal with her sulking for the next week. I suppose it won’t work her up too much more to ask your rate.”

“Ninety pounds a year,” I said.

“No, it won’t do at all,” she said decidedly. “I doubt I’ve paid Danny anything for the past ten years; ninety pounds a year would ruin me. I must say that when I saw you, I didn’t expect that you would be here for a job—you would have gone away happier if you had come with a different purpose.”

“I’m sorry,” I said wretchedly. “I should have brought my pencils and sketchbook with me, but I had to slip out—I wanted so much to see you, and I wasn’t sure if tomorrow—“ By accident I looked up and caught her eye: for a miracle, her face had an expression on it, instead of a mask.

“It wasn’t the portrait that I should have come for, was it?” I asked.

In response Mrs. de Winter leaned forward and kissed me on the mouth, very lightly; in almost the same movement she opened the door to the cabin. When she leaned back she was smiling again—the same smile I had wanted to keep so badly.

“Oh,” I said faintly.

She said, very calmly and briskly: “I’m not in the habit of seducing innocents; it simply isn’t much of an interest. We can sit here on the deck and sip at champagne, if you like—the darkness will be entire within fifteen minutes, which should last us long enough to exhaust all conversational topics. Or we can go to the cabin, and drink champagne, and not speak unless necessary, as you like.”

I did not say a word, but stepped forward, not quite far enough to reach her in the door. She knew already, from the look in my eyes when they caught hers; I think know that she would never have offered herself to any she thought would refuse her. She reached out and caught my hand: hers were ungloved and cool to the touch.

I think that that was the only moment when I would have gone with her. An hour earlier, I would have panicked and fled; an hour later and I would have been too wise to be so enraptured by her interest. Either way, I believe that I would have regretted it; as it was, I did still regret it, but not for some time after.

What did I say to her then? Doubtless it was something awkwardly formal, since I had no experience acceding to seductions. I remember looking into her face, but I find now that I cannot recall her expression: she might have been victorious, surprised, intending, or any one of a hundred others. It did not occur to me to go so far as to kiss her in return, although for the first time I looked at her mouth with that in consideration.

Her hand was in mine—or, rather, I was in hers. “Yes, we will go,” she said, turning so that could see only a sliver of her face. She said, “You must call me Rebecca.” We stepped through the door, bound momentarily by our clasped hands; it was dark inside the cabin, and darker when the movement of the waves shut the door behind us. For one wild instant all I knew was her: her hand in mine, and voice calling out, saying, “Danny, the champagne!”