ONE week's end Jude was as usual walking out to his aunt's at Marygreen from his lodging in Alfredston, a walk which now had large attractions for him quite other than his desire to see his aged and morose relative. He diverged to the right before ascending the hill with the single purpose of gaining, on his way, a glimpse of Arabella that should not come into the reckoning of regular appointments. Before quite reaching the homestead his alert eye perceived the top of her head moving quickly hither and thither over the garden hedge. Entering the gate he found that three young unfattened pigs had escaped from their sty by leaping clean over the top, and that she was endeavouring unassisted to drive them in through the door which she had set open. The lines of her countenance changed from the rigidity of business to the softness of love when she saw Jude, and she bent her eyes languishingly upon him. The animals took a vantage of the pause by doubling and bolting out of the way.
"They were only put in this morning!" she cried, stimulated to pursue in spite of her lover's presence. They were drove from Spaddleholt Farm only yesterday, where Father bought 'em at a stiff price enough. They are wanting to get home again, the stupid toads! Will you shut the garden gate, dear, and help me to get 'em in. There are no men folk at home, only Mother, and they'll be lost if we don't mind."
He set himself to assist, and dodged this way and that over the potato rows and the cabbages. Every now and then they ran together, when he caught her for a moment an kissed her. The first pig was got back promptly; the second with some difficulty; the third a long-legged creature, was more obstinate and agile. He plunged through a hole in the garden hedge, and into the lane.
"He'll be lost if I don't follow 'n!" said she. "Come along with me!"
She rushed in full pursuit out of the garden, Jude alongside her, barely contriving to keep the fugitive in sight. Occasionally they would shout to some boy to stop the animal, but he always wriggled past and ran on as before.
"Let me take your hand, darling," said Jude. "You are getting out of breath." She gave him her now hot hand with apparent willingness, and they trotted along together.
"This comes of driving 'em home," she remarked. "They always know the way back if you do that. They ought to have been carted over."
By this time the pig had reached an unfastened gate admitting to the open down, across which he sped with all the agility his little legs afforded. As soon as the pursuers had entered and ascended to the top of the high ground it became apparent that they would have to run all the way to the farmer's if they wished to get at him. From this summit he could be seen as a minute speck, following an unerring line towards his old home.
"It is no good!" cried Arabella. "He'll be there long before we get there. It don't matter now we know he's not lost or stolen on the way. They'll see it is ours, and send un back. Oh dear, how hot I be!"
Without relinquishing her hold of Jude's hand she swerved aside and flung herself down on the sod under a stunted thorn, precipitately pulling Jude on to his knees at the same time.
"Oh, I ask pardon--I nearly threw you down, didn't I! But I am so tired!"
She lay supine, and straight as an arrow, on the sloping sod of this hill-top, gazing up into the blue miles of sky, and still retaining her warm hold of Jude's hand. He reclined on his elbow near her.
"We've run all this way for nothing," she went on, her form heaving and falling in quick pants, her face flushed, her full red lips parted, and a fine dew of perspiration on her skin. "Well--why don't you speak, deary?"
"I'm blown too. It was all up hill."
They were in absolute solitude--the most apparent of all solitudes, that of empty surrounding space. Nobody could be nearer than a mile to them without their seeing him. They were, in fact, on one of the summits of the county, and the distant landscape around Christminster could be discerned from where they lay. But Jude did not think of that then.
"Oh, I can see such a pretty thing up this tree," said Arabella. "A sort of a--caterpillar, of the most loveliest green and yellow you ever came across!"
"Where?" said Jude, sitting up.
"You can't see him there--you must come here," said she.
He bent nearer and put his head in front of hers. "No--I can't see it," he said.
"Why, on the limb there where it branches off--close to the moving leaf--there!" She gently pulled him down beside her.
"I don't see it," he repeated, the back of his head against her cheek. "But I can, perhaps, standing up." He stood accordingly, placing himself in the direct line of her gaze.
"How stupid you are!" she said crossly, turning away her face.
"I don't care to see it, dear: why should I?" he replied looking down upon her. "Get up, Abby."
"I want you to let me kiss you. I've been waiting to ever so long!"
She rolled round her face, remained a moment looking deedily aslant at him; then with a slight curl of the lip sprang to her feet, and exclaiming abruptly "I must mizzle!" walked off quickly homeward. Jude followed and rejoined her.
"Just one!" he coaxed
"Shan't!" she said
He, surprised: "What's the matter?"
She kept her two lips resentfully together, and Jude followed her like a pet lamb till she slackened her pace and walked beside him, talking calmly on indifferent subjects, and always checking him if he tried to take her hand or clasp her waist. Thus they descended to the precincts of her father's homestead, and Arabella went in, nodding good-bye to him with a supercilious, affronted air.
"I expect I took too much liberty with her, somehow," Jude said to himself, as he withdrew with a sigh and went on to Marygreen.
On Sunday morning the interior of Arabella's home was, as usual, the scene of a grand weekly cooking, the preparation of the special Sunday dinner. Her father was shaving before a little glass hung on the mullion of the window, and her mother and Arabella herself were shelling beans hard by. A neighbour passed on her way home from morning service at the nearest church, and seeing Donn engaged at the window with the razor, nodded and came in.
She at once spoke playfully to Arabella: "I zeed 'ee running with 'un--hee-hee! I hope 'tis coming to something?"
Arabella merely threw a look of consciousness into her face without raising her eyes.
"He's for Christminster, I hear, as soon as he can get there."
"Have you heard that lately--quite lately?" asked Arabella with a jealous, tigerish indrawing of breath.
"Oh no! But it has been known a long time that it is his plan. He's on'y waiting here for an opening. Ah well: he must walk about with somebody, I s'pose. Young men don't mean much now-a-days. 'Tis a sip here and a sip there with 'em. 'Twas different in my time."
When the gossip had departed Arabella said suddenly to her mother: "I want you and Father to go and inquire how the Edlins be, this evening after tea. Or no--there's evening service at Fensworth-- you can walk to that."
"Oh? What's up to-night, then?"
"Nothing. Only I want the house to myself. He's shy; and I can't get un to come in when you are here. I shall let him slip through my fingers if I don't mind, much as I care for 'n!"
"If it is fine we med as well go, since you wish."
In the afternoon Arabella met and walked with Jude, who had now for weeks ceased to look into a book of Greek, Latin, or any other tongue. They wandered up the slopes till they reached the green track along the ridge, which they followed to the circular British earth-bank adjoining, Jude thinking of the great age of the trackway, and of the drovers who had frequented it, probably before the Romans knew the country. Up from the level lands below them floated the chime of church bells. Presently they were reduced to one note, which quickened, and stopped.
"Now we'll go back," said Arabella, who had attended to the sounds.
Jude assented. So long as he was near her he minded little where he was. When they arrived at her house he said lingeringly: "I won't come in. Why are you in such a hurry to go in to-night? It is not near dark."
"Wait a moment," said she. She tried the handle of the door and found it locked.
"Ah--they are gone to church," she added. And searching behind the scraper she found the key and unlocked the door. "Now, you'll come in a moment?" she asked lightly. "We shall be all alone."
"Certainly," said Jude with alacrity, the case being unexpectedly altered.
Indoors they went. Did he want any tea? No, it was too late: he would rather sit and talk to her. She took off her jacket and hat, and they sat down--naturally enough close together.
"Don't touch me, please," she said softly. "I am part egg-shell. Or perhaps I had better put it in a safe place." She began unfastening the collar of her gown.
"What is it?" said her lover.
"An egg--a cochin's egg. I am hatching a very rare sort. I carry it about everywhere with me, and it will get hatched in less than three weeks."
"Where do you carry it?"
"Just here." She put her hand into her bosom and drew out the egg, which was wrapped in wool, outside it being a piece of pig's bladder, in case of accidents. Having exhibited it to him she put it back, "Now mind you don't come near me. I don't want to get it broke, and have to begin another."
"Why do you do such a strange thing?"
"It's an old custom. I suppose it is natural for a woman to want to bring live things into the world."
"It is very awkward for me just now," he said, laughing.
"It serves you right. There--that's all you can have of me"
She had turned round her chair, and, reaching over the back of it, presented her cheek to him gingerly.
"That's very shabby of you!"
"You should have catched me a minute ago when I had put the egg down! There!" she said defiantly, "I am without it now!" She had quickly withdrawn the egg a second time; but before he could quite reach her she had put it back as quickly, laughing with the excitement of her strategy. Then there was a little struggle, Jude making a plunge for it and capturing it triumphantly. Her face flushed; and becoming suddenly conscious he flushed also.
They looked at each other, panting; till he rose and said: "One kiss, now I can do it without damage to property; and I'll go!"
But she had jumped up too. "You must find me first!" she cried.
Her lover followed her as she withdrew. It was now dark inside the room, and the window being small he could not discover for a long time what had become of her, till a laugh revealed her to have rushed up the stairs, whither Jude rushed at her heels.