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Mrs de Winter Meets Mrs de Winter

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Mrs de Winter Meets Mrs de Winter

A Short Story by Vivienne Carroll

Last night I dreamt I went back to Manderley again. But as I passed through the gates, phantom-like, I felt a change occur.  No longer did I see the bare, wild branches stretching long, intrusive fingers across my path.  There was no obstacle in my way.  There was no pale, ghostly moon to illuminate the track.

Instead, the sun blazed hot and fiery in the sky, throwing into view the flowers in the driveway.  But the cheerful, brightly coloured azaleas that I remembered so well were replaced by hydrangeas - their monstrous, iridescent pink and lilac heads drawing my gaze as they dominated the scene in front of me.

But as I advanced forward, I realised that the flowers were not the only eye-catching objects in my view.

I knew instantly who the figure was.  The shock was so immediate, I could hardly draw breath.  The statue-like apparition in the centre of the garden suddenly moved, a smile spreading slowly across her face.

It was Rebecca.  It just had to be!

As she walked slowly forward to meet me, her pace easy and graceful, I could not help feeling a morbid fascination.  Her beauty was more stunning than I had visualised in all that time when I had harbored such jealousy.  No painting or photograph could have begun to justify the full aesthetic impact of the real thing - even if I had ever seen any, which, of course, I hadn’t.

I tried to tell myself; “This woman is wicked.  This person is evil. I must not make contact with her, she will corrupt my mind.”  But it was futile; I knew that I was already drawn to her.  I knew that I must speak with her and hear her voice.

When she reached me,  she extended her hand in a friendly gesture, a warm smile lighting up  her face.

“How do you do?” her lips said, and the sound that came out was gentle and low, and rich and sweet - like the scent of the roses in the garden.  “I am Rebecca de Winter.  I used to be Max’s wife.”

I could not reply right away.  I just stood transfixed and hypnotised by her sparkling blue-green eyes, wide dazzling smile and shining raven black hair - an image of pure perfection.

“She is incapable of love,” I thought, trying to persuade myself to turn and run away from her.   “Maxim said so. He never had a moment’s happiness with her.  That’s why he shot her - that’s why she’s dead.”

She continued smiling; studying me silently with her unblinking sea-green eyes.

Automatically - mechanically - I stretched out my hand.  I felt that I had no choice.

“How do you do?”  I returned.  My voice was shaky, and I knew I was shy and gauche, and incapable of resisting her charms.

I asked myself where I had experienced this feeling before.  I tried to cast my mind back without  success.

Then Rebecca laughed - an easy, lazy laugh, that of a person in full command of the situation.

I swallowed hard.

“Come with me,” she said.  I knew again that I had no choice.  I was under her spell, just like all those others who, I had been told,  she had duped so easily.

She took my arm in a firm but friendly grip and led me down the path.  As we walked, she spoke as if we had known each other for all of our lives.

“Shall we go into the rose garden?  You do prefer that to the west wing, don’t you?”

She clearly already knew me well….

I was afraid. She sensed my nervousness (the sixth sense was apparently one of her many attributes), and she turned to me and stopped walking.  I drew to an abrupt, obedient halt at her side.

“Look,” she began, in a determined, forthright manner.  “Don’t feel threatened by me. I can’t hurt you.  I just want to talk to you and put the record straight.”

For some reason, I felt compelled to believe that she was sincere.

“Very well,” I replied, and actually managed to smile in spite of myself.

For that instant, all that Maxim and I had been through together was forgotten.  I actually wanted to listen to her.

We continued walking and soon arrived at the rose garden.  We sat down beside each other on a garden bench.

The roses smelt even sweeter than I remembered.  Their perfume was heady and intoxicating, much like the presence of the woman now sitting next to me.

I forced myself to look at her and saw that her expression was completely changed.  Her face had a look of earnest desperation, like a child bursting to tell a secret.  Her hands were folded in her lap and her long, elegant fingers were tightly entwined. She sat forward toward me confidentially.

“You think I hated Max, don’t you?”

She paused, waiting for my answer, but that didn’t come - my eyes betrayed my thoughts of affirmation.

“I loved him!”

Her declaration was so heartfelt and unexpected that I recoiled, uttering a cry of disbelief.

“It’s true!  You must believe me, “ she protested, the signs of tears appearing in her huge  aquamarine eyes.

“No!” I cried, standing up and attempting to get the height advantage over her.  She was tall - statuesque, in fact - and I felt dwarfed by her, tiny and insignificant in comparison.

However, this didn’t help my cause.

Rebecca just stared back silently, her gaze hypnotising me and willing me to listen to her again.

There was something about the look in her eyes that made me want to give her a chance.

So I sat back down slowly and waited for her explanation.

“I know my revelation is hard for you to believe,” she began, “But please hear me out.  I know you are a fair person, with an open mind.  Surely you can give me the opportunity to argue my case?”

“Very well then - tell me,” I replied flatly.

She gave me a quick crooked smile of gratitude.  “Thanks for that,” she said brightly.  “By the way - do you mind if I smoke?”

I said that I didn’t.

“Thank you.”

She produced a pack of expensive French cigarettes.  As she lit her single long, slender weed I couldn’t help noticing a slight tremor in her hand.  

This surprised me even more than her declaration that she loved Maxim.  This was not the calm, cool, composed Rebecca who I thought I knew from all the descriptions that had been given to me.

She inhaled and then blew the smoke down her perfect little nose through flared nostrils like an exotic, beautiful dragon.

And so, she began.

“I have never  been submissive towards or dependent on anyone my whole life.”  A quiet smile of pride spread across her face.

“So, when I met Max, I was determined that I was never going to be his slave.  I would never be under anyone’s thumb, wife or not.  I have always been strong and independent.  But, as time went on, and it was obvious he was terribly enchanted with me  - typical man, ha!” 

Her eyes flashed at me briefly with a look of apology for her conceit.

She continued, “Well - I thought - ‘Why not?  Why not settle down at last, be respectable - as Mrs Max de Winter of Manderley?”  She giggled mischievously then saw my look of loathing and stopped.

“Look - please don’t despise me!  Don’t judge me until you have heard the whole story.”

I blushed and looked away.  I actually felt ashamed, and wished that I didn’t.

“Anyway,” she continued  - after taking another long draw on her cigarette - I saw Max for quite some time - we became a bit of a fixture and became known as a real ‘It couple,’ in our social circles.   I became quite fond of him too - in my way.

“Then he proposed and I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be a scream to marry this man and put behind my rather  - ahem, chequered past?” 

She saw my aghast expression.  She poked me affectionately on my shoulder and winked.  

“Don’t worry, dear - I won’t go into the ‘gory details’, suffice to say that I have been rather, shall I say, ‘wild and rebellious’ in my time - a real ‘bright young thing’, if you get my meaning.  But although I am sure you have been told otherwise, although I have been in some ways wicked, I have never done anything really evil or treacherous.”

Before I could protest, she continued, “So - I accepted his proposal.  We had a sumptuous wedding and then went off to our honeymoon in Monte in a blaze of glory.  The first two days of our time together as a married couple were wonderful.  To my surprise, I found myself actually  falling in love with my new husband - yes, me!”  She chuckled and raised her eyebrow at me.

Then she stopped laughing and took another deep draw from her cigarette - and a very long breath out again.  Her eyes lost their sparkle and her expression became dark.

“However,” she continued bitterly, “I then made a fatal mistake.”

She looked me in the eyes and I saw she looked haunted and sad.  That made me sit up and take notice.

“Do you remember the first time you saw Max - when he was standing on the edge of that cliff at Monte?”

I nodded slowly.  I knew that I wasn’t going to like what she had to say.

“Well - I really should have known better.  I thought I was smarter than that - but love blinded me. I mean, I’ve read Tess of the d’Urbervilles, and I know all about men and their double standards.  I’ve always despised them for it.  But - I thought Max would be different.  I trusted him, and thought that he loved me enough to let bygones be bygones and understand about my past.  But…”  - she paused and sighed heavily - “when I told him about my ‘escapades’ I was totally unprepared for his response.  He was furious!  He said he would never forgive me.  He paced up and down, up and down, like a crazy caged tiger, while I just stared down at my feet in abject misery.”

She broke off again, looking thoughtful, as if wondering how to continue.  I felt I had to say something.

“Go on,” I said, by way of encouragement. I suddenly felt a sense of simpatico with her, try as I might to fight it.

“Thanks,” she returned.  “Anyway - when he finally stopped pacing and ranting, he did something even worse.  He stood there moodily,  just gazing out to sea.  I wondered what was going on in that quiet mind of his  - the mind I had come to believe  I knew so well.  I didn’t dare say anything to him in case it set him off again.

“I’d look pretty foolish if I divorced you now,” he said, not looking at me but apparently addressing the crashing waves on the beach below.  He knitted his brows, frowning to himself.  “I have to think of the family name, you see.”  He gave a harsh laugh.  “The family honour.  I mean - what a disgrace it would be - a gross humiliation - for them all to know that my wife,”  (and he spat out that word as if it was poison) “is little more than a tramp.  I mean, honestly  - how could I have been so stupid?” He remonstrated with himself, cursing, and speaking as if I wasn’t there.

“I just stood silently feeling nauseous, and almost numb.

“Yet, deep within me, I summoned up the strength to be defiant.  I felt such conflicting emotions - love, hate, fear - and I had never been afraid of anything or anyone before then.  Anyway….He finally turned to me, his face set like stone.

‘I’ll make a bargain with you,’ he said stiffly. ‘You will be the perfect wife and hostess and run Manderley for me.  I know you can manage that with all your...resourcefulness.’

“I glared at him, feeling hatred for his hypocrisy, but at the same time still feeling love. I know that sounds illogical, but there you go.  That’s how I felt.

“Deep down, I really wanted to pretend that this hadn’t happened.  I wanted him to ‘forgive’ me  - although I never saw my past misdemeanours as crimes.  I was simply sowing my wild oats just as any man, him included I’m sure, would do, and now I was going to pay dearly for my honesty.”

‘You can make my house the best showplace in England,” he continued wistfully.  ‘I can just see it!  We’ll be the model couple we never were, the happiest pair who were never happy.  To the outside world, we will look to all intents and purposes like two people in love. The greatest show on earth, with the two greatest actors.  That will have to do, at the very least.  You had better not let me down -  do you hear?”  He looked at me with a mixture of menace and pain.  For a brief moment I actually felt sorry for him!

Eventually, I spoke.

“Look - Max,” I said, hoping that my natural charm might help to calm him.  “I am sorry that I made you angry with my little revelations.   I see now that it was a terrible mistake of mine to confess all to you like that.”

He grimaced and turned away from me.  So that clearly hadn’t worked!

“But,” I continued, “As you say, we will have to make the best of things.  I’ll run Manderley for you as you requested and make a damn good job of it - I promise. And who knows, in time we might actually make an equally good job of our marriage!  I hope you will learn to forgive me.  I may not be perfect but I am human, after all.

“He turned to face me.  I will never forget the expression on his face or the tone of his voice.

“That will never happen - and that’s a promise, too!  Our marriage is a farce and a dirty sham, and always will be.  From this moment on, understand this - that we can be husband and wife in name only, and nothing more!”

Then my defiance rose within me, giving me the strength to stand up to him.

“Well - so be it - Maximilian de Winter!  Just see if I care!  I can survive with or without your blessing.  I’ll bloody show you!  You are just a man, not God - you will never, ever get the better of me.”

“And so this little ‘understanding’ was the foundation on which we built our ‘marriage’.   In public, we were congratulated on our success and on being the perfect couple.  In private, Max was proud and disdainful and I was defiant and distant.

“But - and now, here’s the rub,” she said glancing at me, then inhaling and exhaling her nicotine slowly.  “All that time when I sat with Danny in my bedroom and laughed with her about the stupidity of men, I secretly still desired Max and would have done anything to win him back.  It was my stubborn pride and independence which kept me apart from him, and hurt my heart, but which also helped me to bear and endure my situation.  But, anyway - as you know, and as I am sure you are sick to death with hearing people tell you, Max and I played our parts extremely well.  You would never have guessed about the true toxic nature of our relationship, such as it was.  I ruled Manderley with a firm but fair hand, and made everyone love me because, let’s face it,  I never got that kind of validation from my nearest and dearest, did I?” 

“But - anyway - it all started to go horribly wrong.  The veneer began to crack.  I became so bored and friendless that I began traveling up to London to see my old social set.  They were a rowdy but likeable bunch, wild and funny, and I found their company to be such a tonic and a relief from the stifling feeling I got when I was at Manderley.  It also reminded me of how being the ‘lady of the manor’ went completely against my true nature.  I was a free spirit who had been captured and caged. 

“I also met up with my cousin Favell.  I know you’ve met him - charming man, what?” she added sarcastically, with a harsh laugh.

“Anyway, I was feeling wretched and desperate (apparently, very desperate!)  and so I embarked on an affair with him.  I cared nothing for him - he was a sly weasel of a man who made my flesh crawl - but I could see that he might have his uses.  I led him a merry dance, I can tell you! Ha!”  She laughed loudly and nudged me, then saw that I didn’t quite share her sense of humour, so she stopped and shrugged, as if to say, “Have it your way!” before continuing.

Then her face fell again, and her expression became troubled.

“Then, one day, after I had been feeling somewhat out of sorts for a while, I decided to go and get myself checked out by my doctor.  I had been losing weight and feeling tired.  I thought he would be able to give me something, you know, a tonic or a pick-me-up of some kind, to help restore my usual buoyant good health.  The doctor was known only to me  - no-one else in my household, not even Danny, knew of him.  I didn’t want anyone to be aware of my weakness.

“Anyway, dear,” she resumed, again addressing me like an apologetic old friend, “I instead got sent for urgent tests in Harley Street and the results were with my doctor at lightning speed.  When he recalled me to tell me the results I was still feeling calm, as I was sure it could be nothing serious. I was too young and anyway, I knew I was invincible.

“But I couldn’t have been more wrong.  He broke it to me that I was very ill - seriously ill - and my disease was so advanced that it could not be treated.  In his words, it was ‘terminal.’  I had pushed him to tell me all this as soon as he’d said it was serious, as I always hated soft words and bedside manners. To me, that’s just a waste of time and a waste of breath.”

Ironically, she chose at that moment to take a big suck on her cigarette, taking the smoke down deep, before she then blew it out again.  But she clearly needed it as a kind of emotional prop.

“I have never been afraid of anything or anyone,” she continued, “But this - the thought of a long, lingering death, no dignity, dependent and dosed up on morphine, was not my idea of fun!”  She laughed harshly.  “So I thought, I had better make it quick.  Then the bitterness and regret that had grown like the cancer inside me because of my empty marriage and loveless life surfaced violently.

“I put my plan into action.  I would orchestrate a scene which would result in my quick, painless death and getting my revenge on Max.   Kill two birds with one stone, yes?” She grinned at me triumphantly and then she changed to a frown as she saw my horrified look.

“So,” she resumed,  “I arranged for Favell to come down from London and meet me at the cabin, at which point I hoped to have wound Max up to a frenzy and have him shoot me, as I knew he was capable of it if he was pushed hard enough - and I had learnt what buttons to press!  Then Favell was to find Max standing over my dead body with a smoking revolver in his hand.  I had timed it down to the last second. 

“I duly wrote to Favell telling him where to be, saying that I had some important news for him, but being very cryptic about the nature of it.

“I staged my final performance down to the last detail.  That little cottage in the cove was my only haven at Manderley and my stage.

“I am not proud of what I did, but I had been pushed to the limits by my cold spouse and I felt that I had no other option but to take the action I took.

“So there I sat, casually smoking on my sofa in that cottage, waiting for them both to turn up at their allotted times and play their parts.

“I should have known that Favell would be late.  I was aware that he was never the most reliable or punctual of people.  And of course, he let me down again. So I had to go for Plan B.

“I had left more than a hint about where I was going that evening.  Max knew about Favell and his ravings on the subject behind closed doors were florid and frequent.

“He seemed surprised to find me alone but launched into a tirade on where Favell was, as he knew I was planning to meet him clandestinely.  He was holding a gun - I’d guessed that he would be.  I had been subtly winding him up all day and he was ready to explode.

“The piece de resistance of my plan was my lie about the child  - the child who never really existed - and to taunt him mercilessly about it.  This was the final straw for him, the ultimate betrayal.  And so, as you know, the rest is history, dear.  He despatched me, and I got my just desires.  Pity he got away with it after all, though, eh?”  She shrugged, took another smoke and   raised an eyebrow meaningfully.

“He didn’t ‘get away with it!” I protested indignantly.  That was all I could think of to say.  She had put up a very convincing case, but I really didn’t want to believe her.

She smiled slowly, and said something which sent a shiver up my spine.

“Of course he didn’t!” she said smoothly.  “Because now I am haunting him - getting to him through you.  You will always be unsure about the truth.  Deep down, you know that he might truly be guilty.  And I know that he married you because he wanted a submissive little wife who would love him blindly, ask no questions and obey him without question.  A pure little soul who was naive and trusting and who would never see him for who he truly is - a cold-hearted murderer!”

I jumped to my feet, my composure finally gone.  My insecurity and rage had got the better of me.

“You’re a liar!” I yelled at the top of my voice.  “I don’t  - I won’t believe you!  You want us to be miserable but it won’t work, do you hear me?!  You will not win!”

The last thing I remember about that very vivid dream is Rebecca’s radiant smile, her sparkling, triumphant blue-green eyes and the sun reflecting off her shining raven hair - just before she shrugged casually as if to say ‘C’est la vie!” and reached for another cigarette.

I flinched awake.   “What a relief!”   I thought.   It had all been a dream after all.  Everything was as it should be - normal - well, as normal as it could be now we were living in our self-imposed exile in a foreign climate.

Maxim was sitting in his usual place with the breakfast tray set out on the little table by our hotel window.

I arose, stretching and yawning, threw on my dressing-gown and went and sat down opposite him.

He was quiet and smiling but with a secretive look in his eyes - his ‘usual self’ these days.  I knew he missed England and the way of life there but he never mentioned it out loud.

He handed me the English newspaper that we were accustomed to receiving a matter of weeks late each time.  He told me that he had given it a cursory glance but hadn’t read it in any depth.

“See anything interesting in there?” he asked.

I noticed that one of the smaller headlines said: “Heiress Murdered  - Husband Found Guilty.”  I wondered if he had noticed it?  After the sordid details I remembered from my dream I really wished that I hadn’t.

I turned the paper over hastily.  “No, I don’t think so,” I said casually, forcing  a smile.  “Can you pass the marmalade, please?”