The Novel on Blue Paper - Chapter 4
About six weeks after Mrs Risley's death, on a bright day in the middle of a wet February, when the floods were all out about the river, the parson came in from a solitary ride through the sopping country; and as he put his foot to the ground his servant said to him:
'There's a lady in the drawing-room waiting to see you, sir. She would wait, and said she had particular business.' And he gave a card as he spoke, on which the rector read Miss Ullathorne with an unconcerned look, for the name was utterly unknown to him. Yet, as he crossed the hall, the conventional smile that he had drawn over his face faded away, as with a strange feeling, half of fear, half of pleasure, he opened the drawing-room door, expecting to see—he couldn't tell why—the writer of those two letters. He went in, and, in spite of his expectation turned pale and trembled when he saw a tall woman standing with her back toward him looking out of the window, for he knew it was she without seeing her face. She turned round suddenly, and faced him with a half startled, half joyous cry, and held out both her hands to him.
She was a beautiful woman, black-haired and dark-eyed, with full lips and a gloriously proportioned figure; but grown thin, with a face worn and haggard, though flushed now as she came toward him with all her frame trembling, and her lips half-open, and her beautiful eyes eager and flashing. She stopped after the first step and hastily took off her gloves, and came forward and stretched out—more timidly it seemed now—one hand to him. I know not what change came over her face as their hands met, for he took hers as if he were afraid of it, and let it drop at once, and said in a short, dry way:
'Sit down, Eleanor. I am glad to see you.'
But she still stood looking at him, and hadn't spoken a word yet, and the change went on in her face all the while.
'What can I do for you?' he said after a while, in a voice that tried to be softer. She heaved a great sigh, and seemed as if she would speak, but said nothing; and presently, he himself sat down, and she moved her hand as if to touch him, but let it fall again.
'Did you come from London today? How are you getting on now, Eleanor?' He spoke hurriedly, almost as if in fear, this time.
She made no answer; again he said:
'You are looking ill. You must be tired. Do sit down; let me get you a glass of wine.'
She turned from him, and stooped down over the glass case that held the ivory junk with its painted and gilded puppets. It was growing dusk now. He called out, with growing trouble in his voice:
'Eleanor, is it really you?'
She turned, and answered nothing.
'I will do anything I can for you.' he said. 'You have heard that my wife is dead.'
Not a word. He rose up from his chair in terror, for he really began to think she was a ghost. All the dreadful threatenings of the disbelieved or disregarded creed of which he was the priest flashed across his brain, mingled with naif or gross ghost stories read long ago in queer little penny garlands with woodcuts. He put his hand before his face for a moment, as if he thought she would be gone when he removed it; but she was there, facing him at the other end of the room in the gathering dusk.
'My God, Eleanor, speak to me!' he said. 'Or are you really a ghost?'
She understood his base fear, and a smile passed over her face, and she came towards him. He could see through the twilight how deadly pale she was. When she came close to him she spoke at last, but as if it were deadly pain to her. Yet even then her voice was sweet and pure, and he felt it so, and shuddered as he heard it.
'No,' she said, 'I am alive, James. Don't you wish I were dead?'
A sound like 'no' came from his lips, and he moved from her a little. She spoke again slowly, and as if it were with a great effort.
'James,' she said, 'when I went to the other end of the room, I thought the door was there. I meant to go at once—but it is right in these matters to leave nothing untried, so I will speak. Yes, I will call you by the old name. Dear James, my darling and my love, do you know why I came here?'
Again he gasped out 'no'.
'O my love,' she said, 'listen yet, for the old days are not yet dead in my heart, and all may go well with us yet. I came here because I heard you were free. I came to be loved, James, to be called by the old pet names, to feel your arms round me and your lips on my face—who knows?—to be married to you, if you would; if you would not, to have hope which would have given me pleasure—ah, who knows what pleasure? James, what will you give me? A little will be enough.'
He stood listening in the gloom with knitted brows, and spoke at last, glad that he couldn't see much of her face.
'Why will you talk like this?' he said. 'I did what lots of young men do. I never said I would marry you then, even, did I?—and how can I marry you now? You talk about the old times. Do you suppose three years haven't changed me more than they have changed you? I wish you had written and asked me to meet you somewhere, instead of coming here.'
He broke in, turning fiercely on her.
'Yes, you did. You needn't remind me of it. Look here, Eleanor, the first words of that letter made an end of the whole thing. Even when we were getting on best I was afraid of you. I wondered whether you wouldn't cut my throat some—no, listen. When I wrote that letter about my marriage to you I was thoroughly trembling with fear, and when your letter came next morning, and I saw you had sent mine back, I didn't open it for a couple of hours. Now, you who are so deuced clever, tell me whether one loves people one is thoroughly afraid of? You said in your letter you had found me out. Well, I believe you had, just for that moment—found out, I believe, that I can't bear such furious women. My God, I think it's for me to curse you now. You have made me a bad man; you and your beauty that I was luckless enough to stumble over—and I used to think how clever you were, too, and how you were like the women in poetry, such people as I had never expected to meet. You have made me an unhappy man, Eleanor. I hate you, and I wish you were dead.'
He flung himself down into a chair as he spoke, and wept aloud. She stood there, quite silent, till his weeping had sunk to sobs. Then she said in a clear low voice:
'I don't curse you now. I don't say farewell to you. I have nothing to wish for, to hope for, to think of. I am glad I can't see your face.'
He heard the room door open and shut, and then the outer door; then he slowly rose, and went out into the hall, where the servant was lighting the lamp, and a flood of horror and disgust, as one damned on earth, swept over him as the light flashed at last over the passing things. The man stared at him, as well he might, as he went to the outer door and opened it.
The night had fallen now, but the thin crescent moon was high and bright. The boughs were tossing about in the wild wind, a great mass of rain-clouds was far down to leeward, and light ragged clouds were drifting across the remote watery grey sky. He ran out bareheaded into the moonlight, but turned back when he had got his hand on the wicket latch, and walked slowly into the house.
If there is such a thing as punishment, the hours of that night were a heavy one to him. He came down the next morning haggard and aged; and in the course of the day sent for his curate, and told him that he was worn out with the terrible loss of his wife's death, and seeing to the future of his motherless children; and that he should go away for a little rest, and would write from the Continent. And so he set out on his travels, and took care not to look at a newspaper—an English one—for he went to Paris for some weeks.
He never heard what became of her, nor need we. She was young, and might live to love again, if she could tide over a few months till the shame of having loved something that didn't exist had worn off her; if she could once more get to see any order or hope in the world.
As for the rector, he came back in two months looking little changed enough. Yet there was a whisper that all wasn't right about him; and people said his temper wasn't bettered by his wife's death; and his presence seemed to cast a blight upon any company he happened upon, though he was a pleasant man enough as the world goes, especially if no-one contradicted him. And so the days wore away.
At one time the villagers began to talk about his marrying again—the sister of the only man with whom he could be said to be really intimate, a small squire some seven miles off, named Ralph Godby, who had been a college friend of his. He was a burly, handsome, goodnatured country gentleman, who found—deuce knows how—some pleasure in the society of this moody, irritable, overbearing man, who, for the rest, would have quarrelled with him for ever, but for the proverbial necessity of its taking two to do that deed. The rector used to go and stay for two or three days at a time, and these visits got very frequent about two years after the death of Mrs Risley: and in fact he would have made love to Miss Godby, a handsome, healthy, round-armed women of twenty-three, if she had let him. But she, as kind-hearted as her brother, with the grain more of insight which a woman of otherwise the same capacity as a man always has, could not abide the sour, morose parson, who generally had a bad word for everybody, and delighted in scattering to the winds any little bit of kindly romance which the simple-hearted woman might get up about people and things about her. So she carefully put on her worst dress when he came there, and covered up her arms and neck at dinner, like a Quakeress (though, to do her justice, she was generally not sorry to let people admire them); never would ride when he was there; got tired of her archery, and laid aside her sketching; and, in short, showed her wholesome hatred of him in the simplest and most straightforward ways; so the parson got more and more overbearing and quarrelsome with these friends of his, till at last his visits grew sparser and sparser, and the gossips of the countryside said—which was not true—that he had made an offer, and been refused.