MICHAELMAS came and passed, and Jude and his wife, who had lived but a short time in her father's house after their remarriage, were in lodgings on the top floor of a dwelling nearer to the centre of the city.
He had done a few days' work during the two or three months since the event, but his health had been indifferent, and it was now precarious. He was sitting in an arm-chair before the fire, and coughed a good deal.
"I've got a bargain for my trouble in marrying thee over again!" Arabella was saying to him. "I shall have to keep 'ee entirely-- that's what 'twill come to! I shall have to make black-pot and sausages, and hawk 'em about the street, all to support an invalid husband I'd no business to be saddled with at all. Why didn't you keep your health, deceiving one like this? You were well enough when the wedding was!"
"Ah, yes!" said he, laughing acridly. "I have been thinking of my foolish feeling about the pig you and I killed during our first marriage. I feel now that the greatest mercy that could be vouchsafed to me would be that something should serve me as I served that animal."
This was the sort of discourse that went on between them every day now. The landlord of the lodging, who had heard that they were a queer couple, had doubted if they were married at all, especially as he had seen Arabella kiss Jude one evening when she had taken a little cordial; and he was about to give them notice to quit, till by chance overhearing her one night haranguing Jude in rattling terms, and ultimately flinging a shoe at his head, he recognized the note of genuine wedlock; and concluding that they must be respectable, said no more.
Jude did not get any better, and one day he requested Arabella, with considerable hesitation, to execute a commission for him. She asked him indifferently what it was.
"To write to Sue."
"What in the name--do you want me to write to her for?"
"To ask how she is, and if she'll come to see me, because I'm ill, and should like to see her--once again."
"It is like you to insult a lawful wife by asking such a thing!"
"It is just in order not to insult you that I ask you to do it. You know I love Sue. I don't wish to mince the matter-- there stands the fact: I love her. I could find a dozen ways of sending a letter to her without your knowledge. But I wish to be quite above-board with you, and with her husband. A message through you asking her to come is at least free from any odour of intrigue. If she retains any of her old nature at all, she'll come."
"You've no respect for marriage whatever, or its rights and duties!"
"What DOES it matter what my opinions are--a wretch like me! Can it matter to anybody in the world who comes to see me for half an hour--here with one foot in the grave! ... Come, please write, Arabella!" he pleaded. "Repay my candour by a little generosity!"
"I should think NOT!"
"Not just once?--Oh do!" He felt that his physical weakness had taken away all his dignity.
"What do you want HER to know how you are for? She don't want to see 'ee. She's the rat that forsook the sinking ship!"
"And I stuck to un--the more fool I! Have that strumpet in the house indeed!"
Almost as soon as the words were spoken Jude sprang from the chair, and before Arabella knew where she was he had her on her back upon a little couch which stood there, he kneeling above her.
"Say another word of that sort," he whispered, "and I'll kill you-- here and now! I've everything to gain by it--my own death not being the least part. So don't think there's no meaning in what I say!"
"What do you want me to do?" gasped Arabella.
"Promise never to speak of her."
"Very well. I do."
"I take your word," he said scornfully as he loosened her. "But what it is worth I can't say."
"You couldn't kill the pig, but you could kill me!"
"Ah--there you have me! No--I couldn't kill you--even in a passion. Taunt away!"
He then began coughing very much, and she estimated his life with an appraiser's eye as he sank back ghastly pale. "I'll send for her," Arabella murmured, "if you'll agree to my being in the room with you all the time she's here."
The softer side of his nature, the desire to see Sue, made him unable to resist the offer even now, provoked as he had been; and he replied breathlessly: "Yes, I agree. Only send for her!"
In the evening he inquired if she had written.
"Yes," she said; "I wrote a note telling her you were ill, and asking her to come to-morrow or the day after. I haven't posted it yet."
The next day Jude wondered if she really did post it, but would not ask her; and foolish Hope, that lives on a drop and a crumb, made him restless with expectation. He knew the times of the possible trains, and listened on each occasion for sounds of her.
She did not come; but Jude would not address Arabella again thereon. He hoped and expected all the next day; but no Sue appeared; neither was there any note of reply. Then Jude decided in the privacy of his mind that Arabella had never posted hers, although she had written it. There was something in her manner which told it. His physical weakness was such that he shed tears at the disappointment when she was not there to see. His suspicions were, in fact, well founded. Arabella, like some other nurses, thought that your duty towards your invalid was to pacify him by any means short of really acting upon his fancies.
He never said another word to her about his wish or his conjecture. A silent, undiscerned resolve grew up in him, which gave him, if not strength, stability and calm. One midday when, after an absence of two hours, she came into the room, she beheld the chair empty.
Down she flopped on the bed, and sitting, meditated. "Now where the devil is my man gone to!" she said.
A driving rain from the north-east had been falling with more or less intermission all the morning, and looking from the window at the dripping spouts it seemed impossible to believe that any sick man would have ventured out to almost certain death. Yet a conviction possessed Arabella that he had gone out, and it became a certainty when she had searched the house. "If he's such a fool, let him be!" she said. "I can do no more."
Jude was at that moment in a railway train that was drawing near to Alfredston, oddly swathed, pale as a monumental figure in alabaster, and much stared at by other passengers. An hour later his thin form, in the long great-coat and blanket he had come with, but without an umbrella, could have been seen walking along the five-mile road to Marygreen. On his face showed the determined purpose that alone sustained him, but to which has weakness afforded a sorry foundation. By the up-hill walk he was quite blown, but he pressed on; and at half-past three o'clock stood by the familiar well at Marygreen. The rain was keeping everybody indoors; Jude crossed the green to the church without observation, and found the building open. Here he stood, looking forth at the school, whence he could hear the usual sing-song tones of the little voices that had not learnt Creation's groan.
He waited till a small boy came from the school--one evidently allowed out before hours for some reason or other. Jude held up his hand, and the child came.
"Please call at the schoolhouse and ask Mrs. Phillotson if she will be kind enough to come to the church for a few minutes."
The child departed, and Jude heard him knock at the door of the dwelling. He himself went further into the church. Everything was new, except a few pieces of carving preserved from the wrecked old fabric, now fixed against the new walls. He stood by these: they seemed akin to the perished people of that place who were his ancestors and Sue's.
A light footstep, which might have been accounted no more than an added drip to the rainfall, sounded in the porch, and he looked round.
"Oh--I didn't think it was you! I didn't--Oh, Jude!" A hysterical catch in her breath ended in a succession of them. He advanced, but she quickly recovered and went back.
"Don't go--don't go!" he implored. "This is my last time! I thought it would be less intrusive than to enter your house. And I shall never come again. Don't then be unmerciful. Sue, Sue! We are acting by the letter; and 'the letter killeth'!"
"I'll stay--I won't be unkind!" she said, her mouth quivering and her tears flowing as she allowed him to come closer. "But why did you come, and do this wrong thing, after doing such a right thing as you have done?"
"What right thing?"
"Marrying Arabella again. It was in the Alfredston paper. She has never been other than yours, Jude--in a proper sense. And therefore you did so well--Oh so well!--in recognizing it-- and taking her to you again."
"God above--and is that all I've come to hear? If there is anything more degrading, immoral, unnatural, than another in my life, it is this meretricious contract with Arabella which has been called doing the right thing! And you too--you call yourself Phillotson's wife! HIS wife! You are mine."
"Don't make me rush away from you--I can't bear much! But on this point I am decided."
"I cannot understand how you did it--how you think it-- I cannot!"
"Never mind that. He is a kind husband to me--And I-- I've wrestled and struggled, and fasted, and prayed. I have nearly brought my body into complete subjection. And you mustn't--will you--wake--"
"Oh you darling little fool; where is your reason? You seem to have suffered the loss of your faculties! I would argue with you if I didn't know that a woman in your state of feeling is quite beyond all appeals to her brains. Or is it that you are humbugging yourself, as so many women do about these things; and don't actually believe what you pretend to, and only are indulging in the luxury of the emotion raised by an affected belief?"
"Luxury! How can you be so cruel!"
"You dear, sad, soft, most melancholy wreck of a promising human intellect that it has ever been my lot to behold! Where is your scorn of convention gone? I WOULD have died game!"
"You crush, almost insult me, Jude! Go away from me!" She turned off quickly.
"I will. I would never come to see you again, even if I had the strength to come, which I shall not have any more. Sue, Sue, you are not worth a man's love!"
Her bosom began to go up and down. "I can't endure you to say that!" she burst out, and her eye resting on him a moment, she turned back impulsively. "Don't, don't scorn me! Kiss me, oh kiss me lots of times, and say I am not a coward and a contemptible humbug-- I can't bear it!" She rushed up to him and, with her mouth on his, continued: "I must tell you--oh I must--my darling Love! It has been--only a church marriage--an apparent marriage I mean! He suggested it at the very first!"
"I mean it is a nominal marriage only. It hasn't been more than that at all since I came back to him!"
"Sue!" he said. Pressing her to him in his arms he bruised her lips with kisses: "If misery can know happiness, I have a moment's happiness now! Now, in the name of all you hold holy, tell me the truth, and no lie. You do love me still?"
"I do! You know it too well! ... But I MUSTN'T do this! I mustn't kiss you back as I would!"
"And yet you are so dear!--and you look so ill----"
"And so do you! There's one more, in memory of our dead little children-- yours and mine!"
The words struck her like a blow, and she bent her head. "I MUSTN'T--I CAN'T go on with this!" she gasped presently. "But there, there, darling; I give you back your kisses; I do, I do! ... And now I'll HATE myself for ever for my sin!"
"No--let me make my last appeal. Listen to this! We've both remarried out of our senses. I was made drunk to do it. You were the same. I was gin-drunk; you were creed-drunk. Either form of intoxication takes away the nobler vision.... Let us then shake off our mistakes, and run away together!"
"No; again no! ... Why do you tempt me so far, Jude! It is too merciless! ... But I've got over myself now. Don't follow me--don't look at me. Leave me, for pity's sake!"
She ran up the church to the east end, and Jude did as she requested. He did not turn his head, but took up his blanket, which she had not seen, and went straight out. As he passed the end of the church she heard his coughs mingling with the rain on the windows, and in a last instinct of human affection, even now unsubdued by her fetters, she sprang up as if to go and succour him. But she knelt down again, and stopped her ears with her hands till all possible sound of him had passed away.
He was by this time at the corner of the green, from which the path ran across the fields in which he had scared rooks as a boy. He turned and looked back, once, at the building which still contained Sue; and then went on, knowing that his eyes would light on that scene no more.
There are cold spots up and down Wessex in autumn and winter weather; but the coldest of all when a north or east wind is blowing is the crest of the down by the Brown House, where the road to Alfredston crosses the old Ridgeway. Here the first winter sleets and snows fall and lie, and here the spring frost lingers last unthawed. Here in the teeth of the north-east wind and rain Jude now pursued his way, wet through, the necessary slowness of his walk from lack of his former strength being insufficent to maintain his heat. He came to the milestone, and, raining as it was, spread his blanket and lay down there to rest. Before moving on he went and felt at the back of the stone for his own carving. It was still there; but nearly obliterated by moss. He passed the spot where the gibbet of his ancestor and Sue's had stood, and descended the hill.
It was dark when he reached Alfredston, where he had a cup of tea, the deadly chill that began to creep into his bones being too much for him to endure fasting. To get home he had to travel by a steam tram-car, and two branches of railway, with much waiting at a junction. He did not reach Christminster till ten o'clock.