"Whom with is her matter. I shall let her go; with him certainly, if she wishes. I know I may be wrong — I know I can't logically, or religiously, defend my concession to such a wish of hers, or harmonize it with the doctrines I was brought up in. Only I know one thing: something within me tells me I am doing wrong in refusing her. I, like other men, profess to hold that if a husband gets such a so-called preposterous request from his wife, the only course that can possibly be regarded as right and proper and honourable in him is to refuse it, and put her virtuously under lock and key, and murder her lover perhaps. But is that essentially right, and proper, and honourable, or is it contemptibly mean and selfish? I don't profess to decide. I simply am going to act by instinct, and let principles take care of themselves. If a person who has blindly walked into a quagmire cries for help, I am inclined to give it, if possible."
"But — you see, there's the question of neighbours and society — what will happen if everybody — "
"Oh, I am not going to be a philosopher any longer! I only see what's under my eyes."
"Well — I don't agree with your instinct, Dick!" said Gillingham gravely. "I am quite amazed, to tell the truth, that such a sedate, plodding fellow as you should have entertained such a craze for a moment. You said when I called that she was puzzling and peculiar: I think you are!"
"Have you ever stood before a woman whom you know to be intrinsically a good woman, while she has pleaded for release — been the man she has knelt to and implored indulgence of?"
"I am thankful to say I haven't."
"Then I don't think you are in a position to give an opinion. I have been that man, and it makes all the difference in the world, if one has any manliness or chivalry in him. I had not the remotest idea — living apart from women as I have done for so many years — that merely taking a woman to church and putting a ring upon her finger could by any possibility involve one in such a daily, continuous tragedy as that now shared by her and me!"
"Well, I could admit some excuse for letting her leave you, provided she kept to herself. But to go attended by a cavalier — that makes a difference."
"Not a bit. Suppose, as I believe, she would rather endure her present misery than be made to promise to keep apart from him? All that is a question for herself. It is not the same thing at all as the treachery of living on with a husband and playing him false... However, she has not distinctly implied living with him as wife, though I think she means to... And to the best of my understanding it is not an ignoble, merely animal, feeling between the two: that is the worst of it; because it makes me think their affection will be enduring. I did not mean to confess to you that in the first jealous weeks of my marriage, before I had come to my right mind, I hid myself in the school one evening when they were together there, and I heard what they said. I am ashamed of it now, though I suppose I was only exercising a legal right. I found from their manner that an extraordinary affinity, or sympathy, entered into their attachment, which somehow took away all flavour of grossness. Their supreme desire is to be together — to share each other's emotions, and fancies, and dreams."
"Well no. Shelleyan would be nearer to it. They remind me of — what are their names — Laon and Cythna. Also of Paul and Virginia a little. The more I reflect, the more ENTIRELY I am on their side!"
"But if people did as you want to do, there'd be a general domestic disintegration. The family would no longer be the social unit."
"Yes — I am all abroad, I suppose!" said Phillotson sadly. "I was never a very bright reasoner, you remember.... And yet, I don't see why the woman and the children should not be the unit without the man."
"By the Lord Harry! — Matriarchy! ... Does SHE say all this too?"
"Oh no. She little thinks I have out-Sued Sue in this — all in the last twelve hours!"
"It will upset all received opinion hereabout. Good God — what will Shaston say!"
"I don't say that it won't. I don't know — I don't know! ... As I say, I am only a feeler, not a reasoner."
"Now," said Gillingham, "let us take it quietly, and have something to drink over it." He went under the stairs, and produced a bottle of cider-wine, of which they drank a rummer each. "I think you are rafted, and not yourself," he continued. "Do go back and make up your mind to put up with a few whims. But keep her. I hear on all sides that she's a charming young thing."
"Ah yes! That's the bitterness of it! Well, I won't stay. I have a long walk before me."
Gillingham accompanied his friend a mile on his way, and at parting expressed his hope that this consultation, singular as its subject was, would be the renewal of their old comradeship. "Stick to her!" were his last words, flung into the darkness after Phillotson; from which his friend answered "Aye, aye!"
But when Phillotson was alone under the clouds of night, and no sound was audible but that of the purling tributaries of the Stour, he said, "So Gillingham, my friend, you had no stronger arguments against it than those!"
"I think she ought to be smacked, and brought to her senses — that's what I think!" murmured Gillingham, as he walked back alone.
The next morning came, and at breakfast Phillotson told Sue:
"You may go — with whom you will. I absolutely and unconditionally agree."
Having once come to this conclusion it seemed to Phillotson more and more indubitably the true one. His mild serenity at the sense that he was doing his duty by a woman who was at his mercy almost overpowered his grief at relinquishing her.
Some days passed, and the evening of their last meal together had come — a cloudy evening with wind — which indeed was very seldom absent in this elevated place. How permanently it was imprinted upon his vision; that look of her as she glided into the parlour to tea; a slim flexible figure; a face, strained from its roundness, and marked by the pallors of restless days and nights, suggesting tragic possibilities quite at variance with her times of buoyancy; a trying of this morsel and that, and an inability to eat either. Her nervous manner, begotten of a fear lest he should be injured by her course, might have been interpreted by a stranger as displeasure that Phillotson intruded his presence on her for the few brief minutes that remained.
"You had better have a slice of ham or an egg, or something with your tea? You can't travel on a mouthful of bread and butter."
She took the slice he helped her to; and they discussed as they sat trivial questions of housekeeping, such as where he would find the key of this or that cupboard, what little bills were paid, and what not.
"I am a bachelor by nature, as you know, Sue," he said, in a heroic attempt to put her at her ease. "So that being without a wife will not really be irksome to me, as it might be to other men who have had one a little while. I have, too, this grand hobby in my head of writing 'The Roman Antiquities of Wessex,' which will occupy all my spare hours."
"If you will send me some of the manuscript to copy at any time, as you used to, I will do it with so much pleasure!" she said with amenable gentleness. "I should much like to be some help to you still — as a — friend."
Phillotson mused, and said: "No, I think we ought to be really separate, if we are to be at all. And for this reason, that I don't wish to ask you any questions, and particularly wish you not to give me information as to your movements, or even your address... Now, what money do you want? You must have some, you know."
"Oh, of course, Richard, I couldn't think of having any of your money to go away from you with! I don't want any either. I have enough of my own to last me for a long while, and Jude will let me have — "
"I would rather not know anything about him, if you don't mind. You are free, absolutely; and your course is your own."
"Very well. But I'll just say that I have packed only a change or two of my own personal clothing, and one or two little things besides that are my very own. I wish you would look into my trunk before it is closed. Besides that I have only a small parcel that will go into Jude's portmanteau."
"Of course I shall do no such thing as examine your luggage! I wish you would take three-quarters of the household furniture. I don't want to be bothered with it. I have a sort of affection for a little of it that belonged to my poor mother and father. But the rest you are welcome to whenever you like to send for it."
"That I shall never do."
"You go by the six-thirty train, don't you? It is now a quarter to six."
"You... You don't seem very sorry I am going, Richard!"
"Oh no — perhaps not."