Her eyes had filled. "HE wouldn't have inquired!" she said. "But you haven't answered me. Will you let me go away? I know how irregular it is of me to ask it — "
"It is irregular."
"But I do ask it! Domestic laws should be made according to temperaments, which should be classified. If people are at all peculiar in character they have to suffer from the very rules that produce comfort in others! ... Will you let me?"
"But we married — "
"What is the use of thinking of laws and ordinances," she burst out, "if they make you miserable when you know you are committing no sin?"
"But you are committing a sin in not liking me."
"I DO like you! But I didn't reflect it would be — that it would be so much more than that... For a man and woman to live on intimate terms when one feels as I do is adultery, in any circumstances, however legal. There — I've said it! ... Will you let me, Richard?"
"You distress me, Susanna, by such importunity!"
"Why can't we agree to free each other? We made the compact, and surely we can cancel it — not legally of course; but we can morally, especially as no new interests, in the shape of children, have arisen to be looked after. Then we might be friends, and meet without pain to either. Oh Richard, be my friend and have pity! We shall both be dead in a few years, and then what will it matter to anybody that you relieved me from constraint for a little while? I daresay you think me eccentric, or super-sensitive, or something absurd. Well — why should I suffer for what I was born to be, if it doesn't hurt other people?"
"But it does — it hurts ME! And you vowed to love me."
"Yes — that's it! I am in the wrong. I always am! It is as culpable to bind yourself to love always as to believe a creed always, and as silly as to vow always to like a particular food or drink!"
"And do you mean, by living away from me, living by yourself?"
"Well, if you insisted, yes. But I meant living with Jude."
"As his wife?"
"As I choose."
Sue continued: "She, or he, 'who lets the world, or his own portion of it, choose his plan of life for him, has no need of any other faculty than the apelike one of imitation.' J. S. Mill's words, those are. I have been reading it up. Why can't you act upon them? I wish to, always."
"What do I care about J. S. Mill!" moaned he. "I only want to lead a quiet life! Do you mind my saying that I have guessed what never once occurred to me before our marriage — that you were in love, and are in love, with Jude Fawley!"
"You may go on guessing that I am, since you have begun. But do you suppose that if I had been I should have asked you to let me go and live with him?"
The ringing of the school bell saved Phillotson from the necessity of replying at present to what apparently did not strike him as being such a convincing argumentum ad verecundiam as she, in her loss of courage at the last moment, meant it to appear. She was beginning to be so puzzling and unstateable that he was ready to throw in with her other little peculiarities the extremest request which a wife could make.
They proceeded to the schools that morning as usual, Sue entering the class-room, where he could see the back of her head through the glass partition whenever he turned his eyes that way. As he went on giving and hearing lessons his forehead and eyebrows twitched from concentrated agitation of thought, till at length he tore a scrap from a sheet of scribbling paper and wrote:
Your request prevents my attending to work at all. I don't know what I am doing! Was it seriously made?
He folded the piece of paper very small, and gave it to a little boy to take to Sue. The child toddled off into the class-room. Phillotson saw his wife turn and take the note, and the bend of her pretty head as she read it, her lips slightly crisped, to prevent undue expression under fire of so many young eyes. He could not see her hands, but she changed her position, and soon the child returned, bringing nothing in reply. In a few minutes, however, one of Sue's class appeared, with a little note similar to his own. These words only were pencilled therein:
I am sincerely sorry to say that it was seriously made.
Phillotson looked more disturbed than before, and the meeting-place of his brows twitched again. In ten minutes he called up the child he had just sent to her, and dispatched another missive:
God knows I don't want to thwart you in any reasonable way. My whole thought is to make you comfortable and happy. But I cannot agree to such a preposterous notion as your going to live with your lover. You would lose everybody's respect and regard; and so should I!
After an interval a similar part was enacted in the class-room, and an answer came:
I know you mean my good. But I don't want to be respectable! To produce "Human development in its richest diversity" (to quote your Humboldt) is to my mind far above respectability. No doubt my tastes are low — in your view — hopelessly low! If you won t let me go to him, will you grant me this one request — allow me to live in your house in a separate way?
To this he returned no answer.
She wrote again:
I know what you think. But cannot you have pity on me? I beg you to; I implore you to be merciful! I would not ask if I were not almost compelled by what I can't bear! No poor woman has ever wished more than I that Eve had not fallen, so that (as the primitive Christians believed) some harmless mode of vegetation might have peopled Paradise. But I won't trifle! Be kind to me — even though I have not been kind to you! I will go away, go abroad, anywhere, and never trouble you.
Nearly an hour passed, and then he returned an answer:
I do not wish to pain you. How well you KNOW I don't! Give me a little time. I am disposed to agree to your last request.
One line from her:
Thank you from my heart, Richard. I do not deserve your kindness.
All day Phillotson bent a dazed regard upon her through the glazed partition; and he felt as lonely as when he had not known her.
But he was as good as his word, and consented to her living apart in the house. At first, when they met at meals, she had seemed more composed under the new arrangement; but the irksomeness of their position worked on her temperament, and the fibres of her nature seemed strained like harp-strings. She talked vaguely and indiscriminately to prevent his talking pertinently.