WHEN he returned she was dressed as usual.
"Now could I get out without anybody seeing me?" she asked. "The town is not yet astir."
"But you have had no breakfast."
"Oh, I don't want any! I fear I ought not to have run away from that school! Things seem so different in the cold light of morning, don't they? What Mr. Phillotson will say I don't know! It was quite by his wish that I went there. He is the only man in the world for whom I have any respect or fear. I hope he'll forgive me; but he'll scold me dreadfully, I expect!"
"I'll go to him and explain--" began Jude.
"Oh no, you shan't. I don't care for him! He may think what he likes-- I shall do just as I choose!"
"But you just this moment said----"
"Well, if I did, I shall do as I like for all him! I have thought of what I shall do--go to the sister of one of my fellow-students in the training-school, who has asked me to visit her. She has a school near Shaston, about eighteen miles from here-- and I shall stay there till this has blown over, and I get back to the training-school again."
At the last moment he persuaded her to let him make her a cup of coffee, in a portable apparatus he kept in his room for use on rising to go to his work every day before the household was astir.
"Now a dew-bit to eat with it," he said; "and off we go. You can have a regular breakfast when you get there."
They went quietly out of the house, Jude accompanying her to the station. As they departed along the street a head was thrust out of an upper window of his lodging and quickly withdrawn. Sue still seemed sorry for her rashness, and to wish she had not rebelled; telling him at parting that she would let him know as soon as she got re-admitted to the training-school. They stood rather miserably together on the platform; and it was apparent that he wanted to say more.
"I want to tell you something--two things," he said hurriedly as the train came up. "One is a warm one, the other a cold one!"
"Jude," she said. "I know one of them. And you mustn't!"
"You mustn't love me. You are to like me--that's all!"
Jude's face became so full of complicated glooms that hers was agitated in sympathy as she bade him adieu through the carriage window. And then the train moved on, and waving her pretty hand to him she vanished away.
Melchester was a dismal place enough for Jude that Sunday of her departure, and the Close so hateful that he did not go once to the cathedral services. The next morning there came a letter from her, which, with her usual promptitude, she had written directly she had reached her friend's house. She told him of her safe arrival and comfortable quarters, and then added:--
What I really write about, dear Jude, is something I said to you at parting. You had been so very good and kind to me that when you were out of sight I felt what a cruel and ungrateful woman I was to say it, and it has reproached me ever since. IF YOU WANT TO LOVE ME, JUDE, YOU MAY: I don't mind at all; and I'll never say again that you mustn't!
Now I won't write any more about that. You do forgive your thoughtless friend for her cruelty? and won't make her miserable by saying you don't?--Ever, SUE.
It would be superfluous to say what his answer was; and how he thought what he would have done had he been free, which should have rendered a long residence with a female friend quite unnecessary for Sue. He felt he might have been pretty sure of his own victory if it had come to a conflict between Phillotson and himself for the possession of her.
Yet Jude was in danger of attaching more meaning to Sue's impulsive note than it really was intended to bear.
After the lapse of a few days he found himself hoping that she would write again. But he received no further communication; and in the intensity of his solicitude he sent another note, suggesting that he should pay her a visit some Sunday, the distance being under eighteen miles.
He expected a reply on the second morning after despatching his missive; but none came. The third morning arrived; the postman did not stop. This was Saturday, and in a feverish state of anxiety about her he sent off three brief lines stating that he was coming the following day, for he felt sure something had happened.
His first and natural thought had been that she was ill from her immersion; but it soon occurred to him that somebody would have written for her in such a case. Conjectures were put an end to by his arrival at the village school-house near Shaston on the bright morning of Sunday, between eleven and twelve o'clock, when the parish was as vacant as a desert, most of the inhabitants having gathered inside the church, whence their voices could occasionally be heard in unison.
A little girl opened the door. "Miss Bridehead is up-stairs," she said. "And will you please walk up to her?"
"Is she ill?" asked Jude hastily.
"Only a little--not very."
Jude entered and ascended. On reaching the landing a voice told him which way to turn--the voice of Sue calling his name. He passed the doorway, and found her lying in a little bed in a room a dozen feet square.
"Oh, Sue!" he cried, sitting down beside her and taking her hand. "How is this! You couldn't write?"
"No--it wasn't that!" she answered. "I did catch a bad cold-- but I could have written. Only I wouldn't!"
"Why not?--frightening me like this!"
"Yes--that was what I was afraid of! But I had decided not to write to you any more. They won't have me back at the school--that's why I couldn't write. Not the fact, but the reason!"
"They not only won't have me, but they gave me a parting piece of advice----"
She did not answer directly. "I vowed I never would tell you, Jude--it is so vulgar and distressing!"
"Is it about us?"
"But do tell me!"
"Well--somebody has sent them baseless reports about us, and they say you and I ought to marry as soon as possible, for the sake of my reputation! ... There--now I have told you, and I wish I hadn't!"
"Oh, poor Sue!"
"I don't think of you like that means! It did just OCCUR to me to regard you in the way they think I do, but I hadn't begun to. I HAVE recognized that the cousinship was merely nominal, since we met as total strangers. But my marrying you, dear Jude--why, of course, if I had reckoned upon marrying you l shouldn't have come to you so often! And I never supposed you thought of such a thing as marrying me till the other evening; when I began to fancy you did love me a little. Perhaps I ought not to have been so intimate with you. It is all my fault. Everything is my fault always!"
The speech seemed a little forced and unreal, and they regarded each other with a mutual distress.
"I was so blind at first!" she went on. "I didn't see what you felt at all. Oh, you have been unkind to me--you have-- to look upon me as a sweetheart without saying a word, and leaving me to discover it myself! Your attitude to me has become known; and naturally they think we've been doing wrong! I'll never trust you again!"
"Yes, Sue," he said simply; "I am to blame--more than you think. I was quite aware that you did not suspect till within the last meeting or two what I was feeling about you. I admit that our meeting as strangers prevented a sense of relationship, and that it was a sort of subterfuge to avail myself of it. But don't you think l deserve a little consideration for concealing my wrong, very wrong, sentiments, since I couldn't help having them?"
She turned her eyes doubtfully towards him, and then looked away as if afraid she might forgive him.
By every law of nature and sex a kiss was the only rejoinder that fitted the mood and the moment, under the suasion of which Sue's undemonstrative regard of him might not inconceivably have changed its temperature. Some men would have cast scruples to the winds, and ventured it, oblivious both of Sue's declaration of her neutral feelings, and of the pair of autographs in the vestry chest of Arabella's parish church. Jude did not. He had, in fact, come in part to tell his own fatal story. It was upon his lips; yet at the hour of this distress he could not disclose it. He preferred to dwell upon the recognized barriers between them.
"Of course--I know you don't--care about me in any particular way," he sorrowed. "You ought not, and you are right. You belong to-- Mr. Phillotson. I suppose he has been to see you?"
"Yes," she said shortly, her face changing a little. "Though I didn't ask him to come. You are glad, of course, that he has been! But I shouldn't care if he didn't come any more!"
It was very perplexing to her lover that she should be piqued at his honest acquiescence in his rival, if Jude's feelings of love were deprecated by her. He went on to something else.
"This will blow over, dear Sue," he said. "The training-school authorities are not all the world. You can get to be a student in some other, no doubt."
"I'll ask Mr. Phillotson," she said decisively.
Sue's kind hostess now returned from church, and there was no more intimate conversation. Jude left in the afternoon, hopelessly unhappy. But he had seen her, and sat with her. Such intercourse as that would have to content him for the remainder of his life. The lesson of renunciation it was necessary and proper that he, as a parish priest, should learn.
But the next morning when he awoke he felt rather vexed with her, and decided that she was rather unreasonable, not to say capricious. Then, in illustration of what he had begun to discern as one of her redeeming characteristics there came promptly a note, which she must have written almost immediately he had gone from her:
Forgive me for my petulance yesterday! I was horrid to you; I know it, and I feel perfectly miserable at my horridness. It was so dear of you not to be angry! Jude please still keep me as your friend and associate, with all my faults. I'll try not to he like it again.
I am coming to Melchester on Saturday, to get my things away from the T.S., &c. I could walk with you for half an hour, if you would like?--Your repentant SUE.
Jude forgave her straightway, and asked her to call for him at the cathedral works when she came.