Our young, innocent female narrator has been invited to lunch at a posh hotel by handsome millionaire Maxim de Winter, who once knew Rebecca’s father. Maxim’s beloved wife Rebecca has recently died, leaving him lonely in his huge country mansion, Manderley.
There was a strange air of unreality about that lunch, and looking back upon it now it is invested for me with a curious glamour. There was I, so much of a schoolgirl still, who only the day before had sat with Mrs Van Hopper, prim, silent, and subdued, and twenty-four hours afterwards my family history was mine no longer, I shared it with a man I did not know. For some reason I felt impelled to speak, because his eyes followed me in sympathy.
My shyness fell away from me, loosening as it did so my reluctant tongue, and out they all came, the little secrets of childhood, the pleasures and the pains. It seemed to me as though he understood, from my poor description, something of the vibrant personality that had been my father’s, and something too of the love my mother had for him, making it a vital, living force, with a spark of divinity about it, so much that when he died that desperate winter, struck down by pneumonia, she lingered behind him for five short weeks and stayed no more. I remember pausing, a little breathless, a little dazed. The restaurant was filled now with people who chatted and laughed to an orchestral background and a clatter of plates, and glancing at the clock above the door I saw that it was two o’clock. We had been sitting there an hour and a half, and the conversation had been mine alone.
I tumbled down into reality, hot-handed and self-conscious, with my face aflame, and began to stammer my apologies. He would not listen to me.
‘I told you at the beginning of lunch you had a lovely and unusual name,’ he said. ‘I shall go further, if you will forgive me, and say that it becomes you as well as it became your father. I’ve enjoyed this hour with you more than I have enjoyed anything for a very long time. You’ve taken me out of myself, out of despondency and introspection, both of which have been my devils for a year.’
I looked at him, and believed he spoke the truth; he seemed less fettered than he had been before, more modern, more human; he was not hemmed in by shadows.
‘You know,’ he said, ‘we’ve got a bond in common, you and I. We are both alone in the world. Oh, I’ve got a sister, though we don’t see much of each other, and an ancient grandmother whom I pay duty visits to three times a year, but neither of them make for companionship. I shall have to congratulate Mrs Van Hopper for recommending you.’
‘You forget’, I said, ‘you have a home and I have none.’
The moment I spoke I regretted my words, for the secret, inscrutable look came back in his eyes again, and once again I suffered the intolerable discomfort that floods one after lack of tact. He bent his head to light a cigarette, and did not reply immediately.
‘An empty house can be as lonely as a full hotel,’ he said at length. ‘The trouble is that it is less impersonal.’ He hesitated, and for a moment I thought he was going to talk of Manderley, his grand home, at last, but something held him back, some phobia that struggled to the surface of his mind and won supremacy, for he blew out his match and his flash of confidence at the same time.