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 downstairs, 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.