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THE next afternoon the familiar Christminster fog still hung over all things. Sue's slim shape was only just discernible going towards the station.
Jude had no heart to go to his work that day. Neither could he go anywhere in the direction by which she would be likely to pass. He went in an opposite one, to a dreary, strange, flat scene, where boughs dripped, and coughs and consumption lurked, and where he had never been before.
"Sue's gone from me - gone!" he murmured miserably.
She in the meantime had left by the train, and reached Alfredston Road, where she entered the steam-tram and was conveyed into the town. It had been her request to Phillotson that he should not meet her. She wished, she said, to come to him voluntarily, to his very house and hearthstone.
It was Friday evening, which had been chosen because the schoolmaster was disengaged at four o'clock that day till the Monday morning following. The little car she hired at the Bear to drive her to Marygreen set her down at the end of the lane, half a mile from the village, by her desire, and preceded her to the schoolhouse with such portion of her luggage as she had brought. On its return she encountered it, and asked the driver if he had found the master's house open. The man informed her that he had, and that her things had been taken in by the schoolmaster himself.
She could now enter Marygreen without exciting much observation. She crossed by the well and under the trees to the pretty new school on the other side, and lifted the latch of the dwelling without knocking. Phillotson stood in the middle of the room, awaiting her, as requested.
"I've come, Richard," said she, looking pale and shaken, and sinking into a chair. "I cannot believe - you forgive your - wife!"
"Everything, darling Susanna," said Phillotson.
She started at the endearment, though it had been spoken advisedly without fervour. Then she nerved herself again.
"My children - are dead - and it is right that they should be! I am glad - almost. They were sin-begotten. They were sacrificed to teach me how to live! Their death was the first stage of my purification. That's why they have not died in vain! ... You will take me back?"
He was so stirred by her pitiful words and tone that he did more than he had meant to do. He bent and kissed her cheek.
Sue imperceptibly shrank away, her flesh quivering under the touch of his lips.
Phillotson's heart sank, for desire was renascent in him. "You still have an aversion to me!"
"Oh no, dear - I have been driving through the damp, and I was chilly!" she said, with a hurried smile of apprehension. "When are we going to have the marriage? Soon?"
"To-morrow morning, early, I thought - if you really wish. I am sending round to the vicar to let him know you are come. I have told him all, and he highly approves - he says it will bring our lives to a triumphant and satisfactory issue. But - are you sure of yourself? It is not too late to refuse now if-you think you can't bring yourself to it, you know?"
"Yes, yes, I can! I want it done quick. Tell him, tell him at once! My strength is tried by the undertaking - I can't wait long!"
"Have something to eat and drink then, and go over to your room at Mrs. Edlin's. I'll tell the vicar half-past eight to-morrow, before anybody is about - if that's not too soon for you? My friend Gillingham is here to help us in the ceremony. He's been good enough to come all the way from Shaston at great inconvenience to himself."
Unlike a woman in ordinary, whose eye is so keen for material things, Sue seemed to see nothing of the room they were in, or any detail of her environment. But on moving across the parlour to put down her muff she uttered a little "Oh!" and grew paler than before. Her look was that of the condemned criminal who catches sight of his coffin.
"What?" said Phillotson.
The flap of the bureau chanced to be open, and in placing her muff upon it her eye had caught a document which lay there. "Oh - only a - funny surprise!" she said, trying to laugh away her cry as she came back to the table.
"Ah! Yes," said Phillotson. "The licence.... It has just come."
Gillingham now joined them from his room above, and Sue nervously made herself agreeable to him by talking on whatever she thought likely to interest him, except herself, though that interested him most of all. She obediently ate some supper, and prepared to leave for her lodging hard by. Phillotson crossed the green with her, bidding her good-night at Mrs. Edlin's door.
The old woman accompanied Sue to her temporary quarters, and helped her to unpack. Among other things she laid out a night-gown tastefully embroidered.
"Oh - I didn't know THAT was put in!" said Sue quickly. "I didn't mean it to be. Here is a different one." She handed a new and absolutely plain garment, of coarse and unbleached calico.
"But this is the prettiest," said Mrs. Edlin. "That one is no better than very sackcloth o' Scripture!"
"Yes - I meant it to be. Give me the other."
She took it, and began rending it with all her might, the tears resounding through the house like a screech-owl.
"But my dear, dear! - whatever ..."
"It is adulterous! It signifies what I don't feel - I bought it long ago-to please Jude. It must be destroyed!"
Mrs. Edlin lifted her hands, and Sue excitedly continued to tear the linen into strips, laying the pieces in the fire.
"You med ha' give it to me!" said the widow. "It do make my heart ache to see such pretty open-work as that a-burned by the flames-not that ornamental night-rails can be much use to a' ould 'ooman like I. My days for such be all past and gone!"
"It is an accursed thing - it reminds me of what I want to forget!" Sue repeated. "It is only fit for the fire."
"Lord, you be too strict! What do ye use such words for, and condemn to hell your dear little innocent children that's lost to 'ee! Upon my life I don't call that religion!"
Sue flung her face upon the bed, sobbing. "Oh, don't, don't! That kills me!" She remained shaken with her grief, and slipped down upon her knees.
"I'll tell 'ee what - you ought not to marry this man again!" said Mrs. Edlin indignantly. "You are in love wi' t' other still!"
"Yes I must - I am his already!"
"Pshoo! You be t' other man's. If you didn't like to commit yourselves to the binding vow again, just at first, 'twas all the more credit to your consciences, considering your reasons, and you med ha' lived on, and made it all right at last. After all, it concerned nobody but your own two selves."
"Richard says he'll have me back, and I'm bound to go! If he had refused, it might not have been so much my duty to-give up Jude. But - " She remained with her face in the bed-clothes, and Mrs. Edlin left the room.
Phillotson in the interval had gone back to his friend Gillingham, who still sat over the supper-table. They soon rose, and walked out on the green to smoke awhile. A light was burning in Sue's room, a shadow moving now and then across the blind.
Gillingham had evidently been impressed with the indefinable charm of Sue, and after a silence he said, "Well: you've all but got her again at last. She can't very well go a second time. The pear has dropped into your hand."
"Yes! ... I suppose I am right in taking her at her word. I confess there seems a touch of selfishness in it. Apart from her being what she is, of course, a luxury for a fogy like me, it will set me right in the eyes of the clergy and orthodox laity, who have never forgiven me for letting her go. So I may get back in some degree into my old track."
"Well - if you've got any sound reason for marrying her again, do it now in God's name! I was always against your opening the cage-door and letting the bird go in such an obviously suicidal way. You might have been a school inspector by this time, or a reverend, if you hadn't been so weak about her."
"I did myself irreparable damage - I know it."
"Once you've got her housed again, stick to her."
Phillotson was more evasive to-night. He did not care to admit clearly that his taking Sue to him again had at bottom nothing to do with repentance of letting her go, but was, primarily, a human instinct flying in the face of custom and profession. He said, "Yes - I shall do that. I know woman better now. Whatever justice there was in releasing her, there was little logic, for one holding my views on other subjects."
Gillingham looked at him, and wondered whether it would ever happen that the reactionary spirit induced by the world's sneers and his own physical wishes would make Phillotson more orthodoxly cruel to her than he had erstwhile been informally and perversely kind.
"I perceive it won't do to give way to impulse," Phillotson resumed, feeling more and more every minute the necessity of acting up to his position. "I flew in the face of the Church's teaching; but I did it without malice prepense. Women are so strange in their influence that they tempt you to misplaced kindness. However, I know myself better now. A little judicious severity, perhaps...."
"Yes; but you must tighten the reins by degrees only. Don't be too strenuous at first. She'll come to any terms in time."
The caution was unnecessary, though Phillotson did not say so. "I remember what my vicar at Shaston said, when I left after the row that was made about my agreeing to her elopement. 'The only thing you can do to retrieve your position and hers is to admit your error in not restraining her with a wise and strong hand, and to get her back again if she'll come, and be firm in the future.' But I was so headstrong at that time that I paid no heed. And that after the divorce she should have thought of doing so I did not dream."
The gate of Mrs. Edlin's cottage clicked, and somebody began crossing in the direction of the school. Phillotson said "Good-night."
"Oh, is that Mr. Phillotson," said Mrs. Edlin. "I was going over to see 'ee. I've been upstairs with her, helping her to unpack her things; and upon my word, sir, I don't think this ought to be!"
"What - the wedding?"
"Yes. She's forcing herself to it, poor dear little thing; and you've no notion what she's suffering. I was never much for religion nor against it, but it can't be right to let her do this, and you ought to persuade her out of it. Of course everybody will say it was very good and forgiving of 'ee to take her to 'ee again. But for my part I don't."
"It's her wish, and I am willing," said Phillotson with grave reserve, opposition making him illogically tenacious now. "A great piece of laxity will be rectified."
"I don't believe it. She's his wife if anybody's. She's had three children by him, and he loves her dearly; and it's a wicked shame to egg her on to this, poor little quivering thing! She's got nobody on her side. The one man who'd be her friend the obstinate creature won't allow to come near her. What first put her into this mood o' mind, I wonder!"
"I can't tell. Not I certainly. It is all voluntary on her part. Now that's all I have to say." Phillotson spoke stiffly. "You've turned round, Mrs. Edlin. It is unseemly of you!"
"Well. I knowed you'd be affronted at what I had to say; but I don't mind that. The truth's the truth."
"I'm not affronted, Mrs. Edlin. You've been too kind a neighbour for that. But I must be allowed to know what's best for myself and Susanna. I suppose you won't go to church with us, then?"
"No. Be hanged if I can.... I don't know what the times be coming to! Matrimony have growed to be that serious in these days that one really do feel afeard to move in it at all. In my time we took it more careless; and I don't know that we was any the worse for it! When I and my poor man were jined in it we kept up the junketing all the week, and drunk the parish dry, and had to borrow half a crown to begin housekeeping!"
When Mrs. Edlin had gone back to her cottage Phillotson spoke moodily. "I don't know whether I ought to do it - at any rate quite so rapidly."
"If she is really compelling herself to this against her instincts-merely from this new sense of duty or religion - I ought perhaps to let her wait a bit."
"Now you've got so far you ought not to back out of it. That's my opinion."
"I can't very well put it off now; that's true. But I had a qualm when she gave that little cry at sight of the licence."
"Now, never you have qualms, old boy. I mean to give her away to-morrow morning, and you mean to take her. It has always been on my conscience that I didn't urge more objections to your letting her go, and now we've got to this stage I shan't be content if I don't help you to set the matter right."
Phillotson nodded, and seeing how staunch his friend was, became more frank. "No doubt when it gets known what I've done I shall be thought a soft fool by many. But they don't know Sue as I do. Though so elusive, hers is such an honest nature at bottom that I don't think she has ever done anything against her conscience. The fact of her having lived with Fawley goes for nothing. At the time she left me for him she thought she was quite within her right. Now she thinks otherwise."
The next morning came, and the self-sacrifice of the woman on the altar of what she was pleased to call her principles was acquiesced in by these two friends, each from his own point of view. Phillotson went across to the Widow Edlin's to fetch Sue a few minutes after eight o'clock. The fog of the previous day or two on the low-lands had travelled up here by now, and the trees on the green caught armfuls, and turned them into showers of big drops. The bride was waiting, ready; bonnet and all on. She had never in her life looked so much like the lily her name connoted as she did in that pallid morning light. Chastened, world-weary, remorseful, the strain on her nerves had preyed upon her flesh and bones, and she appeared smaller in outline than she had formerly done, though Sue had not been a large woman in her days of rudest health.
"Prompt," said the schoolmaster, magnanimously taking her hand. But he checked his impulse to kiss her, remembering her start of yesterday, which unpleasantly lingered in his mind.
Gillingham joined them, and they left the house, Widow Edlin continuing steadfast in her refusal to assist in the ceremony.
"Where is the church?" said Sue. She had not lived there for any length of time since the old church was pulled down, and in her preoccupation forgot the new one.
"Up here," said Phillotson; and presently the tower loomed large and solemn in the fog. The vicar had already crossed to the building, and when they entered he said pleasantly: "We almost want candles."
"You do - wish me to be yours, Richard?" gasped Sue in a whisper.
"Certainly, dear: above all things in the world."
Sue said no more; and for the second or third time he felt he was not quite following out the humane instinct which had induced him to let her go.
There they stood, five altogether: the parson, the clerk, the couple, and Gillingham; and the holy ordinance was resolemnized forthwith. In the nave of the edifice were two or three villagers, and when the clergyman came to the words, "What God hath joined," a woman's voice from among these was heard to utter audibly:
"God hath jined indeed!"
It was like a re-enactment by the ghosts of their former selves of the similar scene which had taken place at Melchester years before. When the books were signed the vicar congratulated the husband and wife on having performed a noble, and righteous, and mutually forgiving act. "All's well that ends well," he said smiling. "May you long be happy together, after thus having been 'saved as by fire.'"
They came down the nearly empty building, and crossed to the schoolhouse. Gillingham wanted to get home that night, and left early. He, too, congratulated the couple. "Now," he said in parting from Phillotson, who walked out a little way, "I shall be able to tell the people in your native place a good round tale; and they'll all say 'Well done,' depend on it."
When the schoolmaster got back Sue was making a pretence of doing some housewifery as if she lived there. But she seemed timid at his approach, and compunction wrought on him at sight of it.
"Of course, my dear, I shan't expect to intrude upon your personal privacy any more than I did before," he said gravely. "It is for our good socially to do this, and that's its justification, if it was not my reason." Sue brightened a little.
Turn to the next chapter: VI