IT was an evening at the end of the month, and Jude had just returned home from hearing a lecture on ancient history in the public hall not far off. When he entered, Sue, who had been keeping indoors during his absence, laid out supper for him. Contrary to custom she did not speak. Jude had taken up some illustrated paper, which he perused till, raising his eyes, he saw that her face was troubled.
"Are you depressed, Sue?" he said.
She paused a moment. "I have a message for you," she answered.
"Somebody has called?"
"Yes. A woman." Sue's voice quavered as she spoke, and she suddenly sat down from her preparations, laid her hands in her lap, and looked into the fire. "I don't know whether I did right or not!" she continued. "I said you were not at home, and when she said she would wait, I said I thought you might not be able to see her."
"Why did you say that, dear? I suppose she wanted a headstone. Was she in mourning?"
"No. She wasn't in mourning, and she didn't want a headstone; and I thought you couldn't see her." Sue looked critically and imploringly at him.
"But who was she? Didn't she say?"
"No. She wouldn't give her name. But I know who she was--I think I do! It was Arabella!"
"Heaven save us! What should Arabella come for? What made you think it was she?"
"Oh, I can hardly tell. But I know it was! I feel perfectly certain it was--by the light in her eyes as she looked at me. She was a fleshy, coarse woman."
"Well--I should not have called Arabella coarse exactly, except in speech, though she may be getting so by this time under the duties of the public house. She was rather handsome when I knew her."
"Handsome! But yes!--so she is!"
"I think I heard a quiver in your little mouth. Well, waiving that, as she is nothing to me, and virtuously married to another man, why should she come troubling us?"
"Are you sure she's married? Have you definite news of it?"
"No--not definite news. But that was why she asked me to release her. She and the man both wanted to lead a proper life, as I understood."
"Oh Jude--it was, it WAS Arabella!" cried Sue, covering her eyes with her hand. "And I am so miserable! It seems such an ill omen, whatever she may have come for. You could not possibly see her, could you?"
"I don't really think I could. It would be so very painful to talk to her now--for her as much as for me. However, she's gone. Did she say she would come again?"
"No. But she went away very reluctantly."
Sue, whom the least thing upset, could not eat any supper, and when Jude had finished his he prepared to go to bed. He had no sooner raked out the fire, fastened the doors, and got to the top of the stairs than there came a knock. Sue instantly emerged from her room, which she had but just entered.
"There she is again!" Sue whispered in appalled accents.
"How do you know?"
"She knocked like that last time."
They listened, and the knocking came again. No servant was kept in the house, and if the summons were to be responded to one of them would have to do it in person. "I'll open a window," said Jude. "Whoever it is cannot be expected to be let in at this time."
He accordingly went into his bedroom and lifted the sash. The lonely street of early retiring workpeople was empty from end to end save of one figure--that of a woman walking up and down by the lamp a few yards off.
"Who's there?" he asked.
"Is that Mr. Fawley?" came up from the woman, in a voice which was unmistakably Arabella's.
Jude replied that it was.
"Is it she?" asked Sue from the door, with lips apart.
"Yes, dear," said Jude. "What do you want, Arabella?" he inquired.
"I beg your pardon, Jude, for disturbing you," said Arabella humbly. "But I called earlier--I wanted particularly to see you to-night, if I could. I am in trouble, and have nobody to help me!"
"In trouble, are you?"
There was a silence. An inconvenient sympathy seemed to be rising in Jude's breast at the appeal. "But aren't you married?" he said.
Arabella hesitated. "No, Jude, I am not," she returned. "He wouldn't, after all. And I am in great difficulty. I hope to get another situation as barmaid soon. But it takes time, and I really am in great distress because of a sudden responsibility that's been sprung upon me from Australia; or I wouldn't trouble you--believe me I wouldn't. I want to tell you about it."
Sue remained at gaze, in painful tension, hearing every word, but speaking none.
"You are not really in want of money, Arabella?" he asked, in a distinctly softened tone.
"I have enough to pay for the night's lodging I have obtained, but barely enough to take me back again."
"Where are you living?"
"In London still." She was about to give the address, but she said, "I am afraid somebody may hear, so I don't like to call out particulars of myself so loud. If you could come down and walk a little way with me towards the Prince Inn, where I am staying to-night, I would explain all. You may as well, for old time's sake!"
"Poor thing! I must do her the kindness of hearing what's the matter, I suppose," said Jude in much perplexity. "As she's going back to-morrow it can't make much difference."
"But you can go and see her to-morrow, Jude! Don't go now, Jude!" came in plaintive accents from the doorway. "Oh, it is only to entrap you, I know it is, as she did before! Don't go, dear! She is such a low-passioned woman-- I can see it in her shape, and hear it in her voice!
"But I shall go," said Jude. "Don't attempt to detain me, Sue. God knows I love her little enough now, but I don't want to be cruel to her." He turned to the stairs.
"But she's not your wife!" cried Sue distractedly. "And I----"
"And you are not either, dear, yet," said Jude.
"Oh, but are you going to her? Don't! Stay at home! Please, please stay at home, Jude, and not go to her, now she's not your wife any more than I!"
"Well, she is, rather more than you, come to that," he said, taking his hat determinedly. "I've wanted you to be, and I've waited with the patience of Job, and I don't see that I've got anything by my self-denial. I shall certainly give her something, and hear what it is she is so anxious to tell me; no man could do less!"
There was that in his manner which she knew it would be futile to oppose. She said no more, but, turning to her room as meekly as a martyr, heard him go down-stairs, unbolt the door, and close it behind him. With a woman's disregard of her dignity when in the presence of nobody but herself, she also trotted down, sobbing articulately as she went. She listened. She knew exactly how far it was to the inn that Arabella had named as her lodging. It would occupy about seven minutes to get there at an ordinary walking pace; seven to come back again. If he did not return in fourteen minutes he would have lingered. She looked at the clock. It was twenty-five minutes to eleven. He MIGHT enter the inn with Arabella, as they would reach it before closing time; she might get him to drink with her; and Heaven only knew what disasters would befall him then.
In a still suspense she waited on. It seemed as if the whole time had nearly elapsed when the door was opened again, and Jude appeared.
Sue gave a little ecstatic cry. "Oh, I knew I could trust you!-- how good you are!"--she began.
"I can't find her anywhere in this street, and I went out in my slippers only. She has walked on, thinking I've been so hard-hearted as to refuse her requests entirely, poor woman. I've come back for my boots, as it is beginning to rain."
"Oh, but why should you take such trouble for a woman who has served you so badly!" said Sue in a jealous burst of disappointment.
"But, Sue, she's a woman, and I once cared for her; and one can't be a brute in such circumstances."
"She isn't your wife any longer!" exclaimed Sue, passionately excited. "You MUSTN'T go out to find her! It isn't right! You CAN'T join her, now she's a stranger to you. How can you forget such a thing, my dear, dear one!"
"She seems much the same as ever--an erring, careless, unreflecting fellow-creature," he said, continuing to pull on his boots. "What those legal fellows have been playing at in London makes no difference in my real relations to her. If she was my wife while she was away in Australia with another husband she's my wife now."
"But she wasn't! That's just what I hold! There's the absurdity!-- Well--you'll come straight back, after a few minutes, won't you, dear? She is too low, too coarse for you to talk to long, Jude, and was always!"
"Perhaps I am coarse too, worse luck! I have the germs of every human infirmity in me, I verily believe--that was why I saw it was so preposterous of me to think of being a curate. I have cured myself of drunkenness I think; but I never know in what new form a suppressed vice will break out in me! I do love you, Sue, though I have danced attendance on you so long for such poor returns! All that's best and noblest in me loves you, and your freedom from everything that's gross has elevated me, and enabled me to do what I should never have dreamt myself capable of, or any man, a year or two ago. It is all very well to preach about self-control, and the wickedness of coercing a woman. But I should just like a few virtuous people who have condemned me in the past, about Arabella and other things, to have been in my tantalizing position with you through these late weeks!--they'd believe, I think, that I have exercised some little restraint in always giving in to your wishes--living here in one house, and not a soul between us."
"Yes, you have been good to me, Jude; I know you have, my dear protector."
"Well--Arabella has appealed to me for help. I must go out and speak to her, Sue, at least!"
"I can't say any more!--Oh, if you must, you must!" she said, bursting out into sobs that seemed to tear her heart. "I have nobody but you, Jude, and you are deserting me! I didn't know you were like this--I can't bear it, I can't! If she were yours it would be different!"
"Or if you were."
"Very well then--if I must I must. Since you will have it so, I agree! I will be. Only I didn't mean to! And I didn't want to marry again, either! ... But, yes--I agree, I agree! I do love you. I ought to have known that you would conquer in the long run, living like this!"
She ran across and flung her arms round his neck. "I am not a cold-natured, sexless creature, am I, for keeping you at such a distance? I am sure you don't think so! Wait and see! I do belong to you, don't I? I give in!"
"And I'll arrange for our marriage to-morrow, or as soon as ever you wish."
"Then I'll let her go," said he, embracing Sue softly. "I do feel that it would be unfair to you to see her, and perhaps unfair to her. She is not like you, my darling, and never was: it is only bare justice to say that. Don't cry any more. There; and there; and there!" He kissed her on one side, and on the other, and in the middle, and rebolted the front door.
The next morning it was wet.
"Now, dear," said Jude gaily at breakfast; "as this is Saturday I mean to call about the banns at once, so as to get the first publishing done to-morrow, or we shall lose a week. Banns will do? We shall save a pound or two."
Sue absently agreed to banns. But her mind for the moment was running on something else. A glow had passed away from her, and depression sat upon her features.
"I feel I was wickedly selfish last night!" she murmured. "It was sheer unkindness in me--or worse--to treat Arabella as I did. I didn't care about her being in trouble, and what she wished to tell you! Perhaps it was really something she was justified in telling you. That's some more of my badness, I suppose! Love has its own dark morality when rivalry enters in-- at least, mine has, if other people's hasn't.... I wonder how she got on? I hope she reached the inn all right, poor woman."
"Oh yes: she got on all right," said Jude placidly.
"I hope she wasn't shut out, and that she hadn't to walk the streets in the rain. Do you mind my putting on my waterproof and going to see if she got in? I've been thinking of her all the morning."
"Well--is it necessary? You haven't the least idea how Arabella is able to shift for herself. Still, darling, if you want to go and inquire you can."
There was no limit to the strange and unnecessary penances which Sue would meekly undertake when in a contrite mood; and this going to see all sorts of extraordinary persons whose relation to her was precisely of a kind that would have made other people shun them was her instinct ever, so that the request did not surprise him.
"And when you come back," he added, "I'll be ready to go about the banns. You'll come with me?"
Sue agreed, and went off under cloak and umbrella letting Jude kiss her freely, and returning his kisses in a way she had never done before. Times had decidedly changed. "The little bird is caught at last!" she said, a sadness showing in her smile.
"No--only nested," he assured her.
She walked along the muddy street till she reached the public house mentioned by Arabella, which was not so very far off. She was informed that Arabella had not yet left, and in doubt how to announce herself so that her predecessor in Jude's affections would recognize her, she sent up word that a friend from Spring Street had called, naming the place of Jude's residence. She was asked to step upstairs, and on being shown into a room found that it was Arabella's bedroom, and that the latter had not yet risen. She halted on the turn of her toe till Arabella cried from the bed, "Come in and shut the door," which Sue accordingly did.
Arabella lay facing the window, and did not at once turn her head: and Sue was wicked enough, despite her penitence, to wish for a moment that Jude could behold her forerunner now, with the daylight full upon her. She may have seemed handsome enough in profile under the lamps, but a frowsiness was apparent this morning; and the sight of her own fresh charms in the looking-glass made Sue's manner bright, till she reflected what a meanly sexual emotion this was in her, and hated herself for it.
"I've just looked in to see if you got back comfortably last night, that's all," she said gently. "I was afraid afterwards that you might have met with any mishap?"
"Oh--how stupid this is! I thought my visitor was--your friend-- your husband--Mrs. Fawley, as I suppose you call yourself?" said Arabella, flinging her head back upon the pillows with a disappointed toss, and ceasing to retain the dimple she had just taken the trouble to produce.
"Indeed I don't," said Sue.
"Oh, I thought you might have, even if he's not really yours. Decency is decency, any hour of the twenty-four."
"I don't know what you mean," said Sue stiffly. "He is mine, if you come to that!"
"He wasn't yesterday."
Sue coloured roseate, and said "How do you know?"
"From your manner when you talked to me at the door. Well, my dear, you've been quick about it, and I expect my visit last night helped it on-- ha-ha! But I don't want to get him away from you."
Sue looked out at the rain, and at the dirty toilet-cover, and at the detached tail of Arabella's hair hanging on the looking-glass, just as it had done in Jude's time; and wished she had not come. In the pause there was a knock at the door, and the chambermaid brought in a telegram for "Mrs. Cartlett."
Arabella opened it as she lay, and her ruffled look disappeared.
"I am much obliged to you for your anxiety about me," she said blandly when the maid had gone; "but it is not necessary you should feel it. My man finds he can't do without me after all, and agrees to stand by the promise to marry again over here that he has made me all along. See here! This is in answer to one from me." She held out the telegram for Sue to read, but Sue did not take it. "He asks me to come back. His little corner public in Lambeth would go to pieces without me, he says. But he isn't going to knock me about when he has had a drop, any more after we are spliced by English law than before! ... As for you, I should coax Jude to take me before the parson straight off, and have done with it, if I were in your place. I say it as a friend, my dear."
"He's waiting to, any day," returned Sue, with frigid pride.
"Then let him, in Heaven's name. Life with a man is more businesslike after it, and money matters work better. And then, you see, if you have rows, and he turns you out of doors, you can get the law to protect you, which you can't otherwise, unless he half-runs you through with a knife, or cracks your noddle with a poker. And if he bolts away from you--I say it friendly, as woman to woman, for there's never any knowing what a man med do-- you'll have the sticks o' furniture, and won't be looked upon as a thief. I shall marry my man over again, now he's willing, as there was a little flaw in the first ceremony. In my telegram last night which this is an answer to, I told him I had almost made it up with Jude; and that frightened him, I expect! Perhaps I should quite have done it if it hadn't been for you," she said laughing; "and then how different our histories might have been from to-day! Never such a tender fool as Jude is if a woman seems in trouble, and coaxes him a bit! Just as he used to be about birds and things. However, as it happens, it is just as well as if I had made it up, and I forgive you. And, as I say, I'd advise you to get the business legally done as soon as possible. You'll find it an awful bother later on if you don't."
"I have told you he is asking me to marry him--to make our natural marriage a legal one," said Sue, with yet more dignity. "It was quite by my wish that he didn't the moment I was free."
"Ah, yes--you are a oneyer too, like myself," said Arabella, eyeing her visitor with humorous criticism. "Bolted from your first, didn't you, like me?"
"Good morning!--I must go," said Sue hastily.
"And I, too, must up and off!" replied the other, springing out of bed so suddenly that the soft parts of her person shook. Sue jumped aside in trepidation. "Lord, I am only a woman-- not a six-foot sojer! ... Just a moment, dear," she continued, putting her hand on Sue's arm. "I really did want to consult Jude on a little matter of business, as I told him. I came about that more than anything else. Would he run up to speak to me at the station as I am going? You think not. Well, I'll write to him about it. I didn't want to write it, but never mind-- I will."