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.