"I don't know. He wanted to, and I let him."
"I hope it pleased him. I should think it was hardly a novelty."
They lapsed into silence. Had this been a case in the court of an omniscient judge, he might have entered on his notes the curious fact that Sue had placed the minor for the major indiscretion, and had not said a word about the kiss.
After tea that evening Phillotson sat balancing the school registers. She remained in an unusually silent, tense, and restless condition, and at last, saying she was tired, went to bed early. When Phillotson arrived upstairs, weary with the drudgery of the attendance-numbers, it was a quarter to twelve o'clock. Entering their chamber, which by day commanded a view of some thirty or forty miles over the Vale of Blackmoor, and even into Outer Wessex, he went to the window, and, pressing his face against the pane, gazed with hard-breathing fixity into the mysterious darkness which now covered the far-reaching scene. He was musing, "I think," he said at last, without turning his head, "that I must get the committee to change the school-stationer. All the copybooks are sent wrong this time."
There was no reply. Thinking Sue was dozing he went on:
"And there must be a rearrangement of that ventilator in the class-room. The wind blows down upon my head unmercifully and gives me the ear-ache."
As the silence seemed more absolute than ordinarily he turned round. The heavy, gloomy oak wainscot, which extended over the walls upstairs and down in the dilapidated "Old-Grove Place," and the massive chimney-piece reaching to the ceiling, stood in odd contrast to the new and shining brass bedstead, and the new suite of birch furniture that he had bought for her, the two styles seeming to nod to each other across three centuries upon the shaking floor.
"Soo!" he said (this being the way in which he pronounced her name).
She was not in the bed, though she had apparently been there — the clothes on her side being flung back. Thinking she might have forgotten some kitchen detail and gone downstairs for a moment to see to it, he pulled off his coat and idled quietly enough for a few minutes, when, finding she did not come, he went out upon the landing, candle in hand, and said again "Soo!"
"Yes!" came back to him in her voice, from the distant kitchen quarter.
"What are you doing down there at midnight — tiring yourself out for nothing!"
"I am not sleepy; I am reading; and there is a larger fire here."
He went to bed. Some time in the night he awoke. She was not there, even now. Lighting a candle he hastily stepped out upon the landing, and again called her name.
She answered "Yes!" as before, but the tones were small and confined, and whence they came he could not at first understand. Under the staircase was a large clothes-closet, without a window; they seemed to come from it. The door was shut, but there was no lock or other fastening. Phillotson, alarmed, went towards it, wondering if she had suddenly become deranged.
"What are you doing in there?" he asked.
"Not to disturb you I came here, as it was so late."
"But there's no bed, is there? And no ventilation! Why, you'll be suffocated if you stay all night!"
"Oh no, I think not. Don't trouble about me."
"But — " Phillotson seized the knob and pulled at the door. She had fastened it inside with a piece of string, which broke at his pull. There being no bedstead she had flung down some rugs and made a little nest for herself in the very cramped quarters the closet afforded.
When he looked in upon her she sprang out of her lair, great-eyed and trembling.
"You ought not to have pulled open the door!" she cried excitedly. "It is not becoming in you! Oh, will you go away; please will you!"
She looked so pitiful and pleading in her white nightgown against the shadowy lumber-hole that he was quite worried. She continued to beseech him not to disturb her.
He said: "I've been kind to you, and given you every liberty; and it is monstrous that you should feel in this way!"
"Yes," said she, weeping. "I know that! It is wrong and wicked of me, I suppose! I am very sorry. But it is not I altogether that am to blame!"
"Who is then? Am I?"
"No — I don't know! The universe, I suppose — things in general, because they are so horrid and cruel!"
"Well, it is no use talking like that. Making a man's house so unseemly at this time o' night! Eliza will hear if we don't mind." (He meant the servant.) "Just think if either of the parsons in this town was to see us now! I hate such eccentricities, Sue. There's no order or regularity in your sentiments! ... But I won't intrude on you further; only I would advise you not to shut the door too tight, or I shall find you stifled to-morrow."
On rising the next morning he immediately looked into the closet, but Sue had already gone downstairs. There was a little nest where she had lain, and spiders' webs hung overhead. "What must a woman's aversion be when it is stronger than her fear of spiders!" he said bitterly.
He found her sitting at the breakfast-table, and the meal began almost in silence, the burghers walking past upon the pavement — or rather roadway, pavements being scarce here — which was two or three feet above the level of the parlour floor. They nodded down to the happy couple their morning greetings, as they went on.
"Richard," she said all at once; "would you mind my living away from you?"
"Away from me? Why, that's what you were doing when I married you. What then was the meaning of marrying at all?"
"You wouldn't like me any the better for telling you."
"I don't object to know."
"Because I thought I could do nothing else. You had got my promise a long time before that, remember. Then, as time went on, I regretted I had promised you, and was trying to see an honourable way to break it off. But as I couldn't I became rather reckless and careless about the conventions. Then you know what scandals were spread, and how I was turned out of the training school you had taken such time and trouble to prepare me for and get me into; and this frightened me and it seemed then that the one thing I could do would be to let the engagement stand. Of course I, of all people, ought not to have cared what was said, for it was just what I fancied I never did care for. But I was a coward — as so many women are — and my theoretic unconventionality broke down. If that had not entered into the case it would have been better to have hurt your feelings once for all then, than to marry you and hurt them all my life after... And you were so generous in never giving credit for a moment to the rumour."
"I am bound in honesty to tell you that I weighed its probability and inquired of your cousin about it."
"Ah!" she said with pained surprise.
"I didn't doubt you."
"But you inquired!"
"I took his word."