Jude's old and embittered aunt lay unwell at Marygreen, and on the following Sunday he went to see her — a visit which was the result of a victorious struggle against his inclination to turn aside to the village of Lumsdon and obtain a miserable interview with his cousin, in which the word nearest his heart could not be spoken, and the sight which had tortured him could not be revealed.
His aunt was now unable to leave her bed, and a great part of Jude's short day was occupied in making arrangements for her comfort. The little bakery business had been sold to a neighbour, and with the proceeds of this and her savings she was comfortably supplied with necessaries and more, a widow of the same village living with her and ministering to her wants. It was not till the time had nearly come for him to leave that he obtained a quiet talk with her, and his words tended insensibly towards his cousin.
"Was Sue born here?"
"She was — in this room. They were living here at that time. What made 'ee ask that?"
"Oh — I wanted to know."
"Now you've been seeing her!" said the harsh old woman. "And what did I tell 'ee?"
"Well — that I was not to see her."
"Have you gossiped with her?"
"Then don't keep it up. She was brought up by her father to hate her mother's family; and she'll look with no favour upon a working chap like you — a townish girl as she's become by now. I never cared much about her. A pert little thing, that's what she was too often, with her tight-strained nerves. Many's the time I've smacked her for her impertinence. Why, one day when she was walking into the pond with her shoes and stockings off, and her petticoats pulled above her knees, afore I could cry out for shame, she said: 'Move on, Aunty! This is no sight for modest eyes!'"
"She was a little child then."
"She was twelve if a day."
"Well — of course. But now she's older she's of a thoughtful, quivering, tender nature, and as sensitive as — "
"Jude!" cried his aunt, springing up in bed. "Don't you be a fool about her!"
"No, no, of course not."
"Your marrying that woman Arabella was about as bad a thing as a man could possibly do for himself by trying hard. But she's gone to the other side of the world, and med never trouble you again. And there'll be a worse thing if you, tied and bound as you be, should have a fancy for Sue. If your cousin is civil to you, take her civility for what it is worth. But anything more than a relation's good wishes it is stark madness for 'ee to give her. If she's townish and wanton it med bring 'ee to ruin."
"Don't say anything against her, Aunt! Don't, please!"
A relief was afforded to him by the entry of the companion and nurse of his aunt, who must have been listening to the conversation, for she began a commentary on past years, introducing Sue Bridehead as a character in her recollections. She described what an odd little maid Sue had been when a pupil at the village school across the green opposite, before her father went to London — how, when the vicar arranged readings and recitations, she appeared on the platform, the smallest of them all, "in her little white frock, and shoes, and pink sash"; how she recited "Excelsior," "There was a sound of revelry by night," and "The Raven"; how during the delivery she would knit her little brows and glare round tragically, and say to the empty air, as if some real creature stood there —
"Ghastly, grim, and ancient Raven, wandering from the Nightly shore, Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night's Plutonian shore!"
"She'd bring up the nasty carrion bird that clear," corroborated the sick woman reluctantly, "as she stood there in her little sash and things, that you could see un a'most before your very eyes. You too, Jude, had the same trick as a child of seeming to see things in the air."
The neighbour told also of Sue's accomplishments in other kinds:
"She was not exactly a tomboy, you know; but she could do things that only boys do, as a rule. I've seen her hit in and steer down the long slide on yonder pond, with her little curls blowing, one of a file of twenty moving along against the sky like shapes painted on glass, and up the back slide without stopping. All boys except herself; and then they'd cheer her, and then she'd say, 'Don't be saucy, boys,' and suddenly run indoors. They'd try to coax her out again. But 'a wouldn't come."
These retrospective visions of Sue only made Jude the more miserable that he was unable to woo her, and he left the cottage of his aunt that day with a heavy heart. He would fain have glanced into the school to see the room in which Sue's little figure had so glorified itself; but he checked his desire and went on.
It being Sunday evening some villagers who had known him during his residence here were standing in a group in their best clothes. Jude was startled by a salute from one of them:
"Ye've got there right enough, then!"
Jude showed that he did not understand.
"Why, to the seat of l'arning — the 'City of Light' you used to talk to us about as a little boy! Is it all you expected of it?"
"Yes; more!" cried Jude.
"When I was there once for an hour I didn't see much in it for my part; auld crumbling buildings, half church, half almshouse, and not much going on at that."
"You are wrong, John; there is more going on than meets the eye of a man walking through the streets. It is a unique centre of thought and religion — the intellectual and spiritual granary of this country. All that silence and absence of goings-on is the stillness of infinite motion — the sleep of the spinning-top, to borrow the simile of a well-known writer."
"Oh, well, it med be all that, or it med not. As I say, I didn't see nothing of it the hour or two I was there; so I went in and had a pot o' beer, and a penny loaf, and a ha'porth o' cheese, and waited till it was time to come along home. You've j'ined a college by this time, I suppose?"
"Ah, no!" said Jude. "I am almost as far off that as ever."
Jude slapped his pocket.
"Just what we thought! Such places be not for such as you — only for them with plenty o' money."
"There you are wrong," said Jude, with some bitterness. "They are for such ones!"
Still, the remark was sufficient to withdraw Jude's attention from the imaginative world he had lately inhabited, in which an abstract figure, more or less himself, was steeping his mind in a sublimation of the arts and sciences, and making his calling and election sure to a seat in the paradise of the learned. He was set regarding his prospects in a cold northern light. He had lately felt that he could not quite satisfy himself in his Greek — in the Greek of the dramatists particularly. So fatigued was he sometimes after his day's work that he could not maintain the critical attention necessary for thorough application. He felt that he wanted a coach — a friend at his elbow to tell him in a moment what sometimes would occupy him a weary month in extracting from unanticipative, clumsy books.