William Morris Archive


Parson Risley had taken the living of Ormslade as a young man, newly married; his wife bore him two sons at Ormslade and died a year after the birth of the second, little regretted by him. She had been a pale, thin, querulous, flaxen-haired woman with blue eyes, whom he had never treated with even a show of respect. For this, as for everything else, she didn't seem to care greatly; yet when she was sickening for her last Illness (she died in childbirth of her third child, who died with her) it is certain that she had in her mind a great longing to live till one of her sons grew up, that she might tell him a grievance of hers, and perhaps entrust a hatred to him; a hatred to his father.   

Nobody was with her when she died except the hired nurses and the little village doctor. Of this latter she asked many questions as to 'when he thought children grew old enough to understand matters of love' and the like questions which he parried as well as he could, and in his turn asked leading questions, to see if she would not tell him the story, whatever it was. But she didn't open herself to him and died and left all unsaid.

After all, it was no great thing that she had to tell; only how she had found three letters in an old pocket-book of her husband's, hidden away among clothes. Here they all are, in order that we may make an end of the rector's history at once, before we begin that of his sons, with whom our tale will chiefly have to do. They all dated from before his marriage; the first is in his own hand:

Hasted Hall

My love, my darling—

I could not do it yesterday, though I came up to London for nothing but to tell you. And yet l was going to do it, the last half hour we were together, though you were so happy and bright. Didn’t you notice how confused and stupid I was? But then, when you took me to see your newly-furnished bedroom, and were so pretty over talking about all the things, and showed me your dear clothes in the drawers, and I saw your little slippers lying about, and all the dear things that touch your body that I love so, your little slippers lying about, and all the dear things that touch your body that I love so, , as I thought I should never lie with you in the new pretty bed, and I came away with the kisses that I feel now, and leaving that lie behind me—for you know the kind of thing I have to say. Don't curse me; then my heart failed me as I thought I should never lie with you in the pretty new bed, and I came away with the kisses that I feel now, and leaving that lie behind me—for you know the kind of thing I have to say. Don’t curse me; live, and think of me, as I shall think of you.

I am to be married next Thursday. Who knows, we may meet again—my wife may die before we are either of us very old—you know, dear, that life won't be very pleasant to me so don't he too angry. At all events, be sure that I don't love her. Ugh! I haven't told you a word about it, and now, when all is over, why should I? yet I must say this much, that  I should have been clean ruined if I had not. Just a hint to my father a month ago about what might have happened to me made him quite mad, and you don't know how I ran into debt—there, you forgive me, don't you? as you have forgiven me so many times.

Ah, my God, if I were only back with you to forgive and be forgiven over and over again! How can I do it, how can I do it? To lie, and pretend to love this ugly stupid woman—hard­hearted, too she is—when I have had the cleverest and most beautiful woman in the world in my arms! Why was I born among rich people loving all sorts of comfort? One thing more—I shall go to my rectory as soon as I am married—my wife is rich—I can easily afford to send you £250 a year, so you will be richer now than you have been. I must try to think how you can write to me, for I must hear of you—for indeed and indeed I shall always love you, my precious, my darling, my own! O, if you could only kiss your poor James.

The second letter was this, in a large well-formed woman's hand:

There is your letter back again. Take it, and the curse with it you pretend to dread. Yet if I curse you, I don't curse God; I bless him rather for showing me what you are while I could yet escape from you—yes, even at the cost of all the pollution I have suffered from you, and the loss of the house (a dull loveless one, certainly) I left for you. Curse you and your money—the money for which you have sold me and yourself. I will have none of it. Who cares whether I die or not? And as for you—I know you now; my eyes are opened; all sorts of little things come back to me now, and I see what they mean. I stifled all doubts in me—all disgusts I hid to myself—I should soon have got to be as base as you. Ah, why am I writing to him and telling him of my feelings as if we were still—lovers? but note this: may your life grow duller and duller in the dull place you are going to bury yourself in—may you have no escape in the whole world from dullness—I say I know you; may all your grossnesses and falsenesses increase on you till everything hates you, till your face that I have kissed, and hung over, changes as your base soul works on it. My curse, my curse, upon you—ah, why are words so weak?—I will not die, do you hear? I will live and curse you.

The third, with the date of the next post, was in the same hand:

Oh no, no, no, I didn’t mean it—and have you forgiven me? Indeed I will live, and wait, and hope, and try to keep young and-handsome for you. O, what a letter I could write! If you only knew how full my heart is of love for you; yes, I shall be happy with my love, whatever happens. I could tell you many things, only the same and horror of my last miserable words keeps returning. What did I do the night I sent the letter off?—last night it was. Let me tell you that, for I know you will be pleased to hear about me, and that you are forgiving me as you read this.

I wandered about the street after post time till it got dark, and then went right into town; it was such a fine bright evening, and I felt so strange, not at all like I expected to feel; I can't tell you how, but not mad at all. So it got dark, and still I walked about, all through the City at first, and then I turned westward and got into the Strand, and people spoke to me as if I was—well, I shall never be that, never! I will live and be good till I can be with you again, my darling—and then I began to love you so again, and I cried, and put my veil down, and I stopped at the turning off to Waterloo Bridge and went half way down the street toward the bridge—and then there were so many people about; and I turned back and went straight to the Olympic; and I took a ticket for the stalls, quite sensibly, and went in and sat in one of the stalls close by the door, just where we sat last week, my darling—and Robson was acting in Medea still, though it was half over. Wasn't it strange of me? And shall I tell you how I felt when the people laughed? Well, I thought quite distinctly:  'Now I needn't trouble to kill myself after all, because I must have died, and this is hell'—you have forgiven me, dear, haven't you? that's why I tell you all this—well, Medea came to an end, and then there was a farce, and people laughed more and more till at last we all got up, and I got my bonnet and walked straight home and it was raining when I came to Waterloo Bridge, for I went that way home. There were few people about, but I walked straight home, and ran sometimes. I don't know why, but I had a feeling on me of being too late.

Well, I got home, and I daresay you can guess—poor child! Who must be so unhappy yourself—as to how I felt when I let myself in. Anything one calls home is the worst place to be in when one is unhappy, isn’t it, dear? Yet I must have gone to sleep, for soon it was broad daylight when I looked round again; broad daylight outside, I mean, for the red curtains in the little back room that you don't like were drawn, and made the front room dark and dismal—and l found myself wet, very stiff and tired, and footsore; and I crept upstairs to our—to my bedroom; then I began to take off my clothes—dear, I can’t tell you any more what I did, but it was all very dreadful; but don’t grieve too much, for I am better now; because the sun rose a rose after a bit, long before Martha was astir, and then I crept downstairs in those slippers, dear, and got the pen and ink, and began to write this; and I  felt quite happy at once, but tired and ill.

Your letter was very kind, I know—so kind, my darling, that I know you have forgiven me—and you mustn't think me light-headed for writing all this. I am quite sensible: and to show you that I will talk about money matters—of course I would take your money, dear, if only to be obliged to you, and to live by you still; but it would be so very awkward for you to send it. And you must remember my telling you of Mr Dixon, my godfather? and how, in spite of all, he wanted me to come and live with him; I shall do so soon now. He is one of the best of old men, who knows and cares so little about the ways of society that I think he looks upon marriage as quite as shocking as anything else. Think of me, dear, among the books and papers in his museum of a house on Stoke Newington Common though I don't suppose you were ever near there. O darling, darling, think of me, and be as happy with your wife as you can be. Get children, and love them.  Who knows what may happen? as you said in your letter.—O, my dear, it is almost the bitterest of all that I didn't keep your dear, dear letter. Yet, even if you don't write to me again, I shall know you have forgiven me.—Yet your kisses, those kisses you spoke of are on my lips still—

Goodbye, goodbye—

Your Eleanor

These three letters, put in one envelope and addressed in Mrs Risley's weak formal hand, were found under her pillow when she died. Her husband took them, glanced at them, and made a motion toward the fire, but didn't throw them in. One may hope from this that at least a little pain shot across him as he put them away in his bureau. But I think there was something of fear, too, and it must be said that he had never answered no. 3—that no. 2 had not astonished him exactly, but made him both uneasy and resentful; and that he rather looked at himself as an injured man, on that score, thenceforward.

Continue to Chapter 4

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