Henchard had chosen this spot as being the safest from observation which he could think of for meeting his long-lost wife, and at the same time as one easily to be found by a stranger after nightfall. As Mayor of the town, with a reputation to keep up, he could not invite her to come to his house till some definite course had been decided on.
Just before eight he approached the deserted earth-work and entered by the south path which descended over the debris of the former dens. In a few moments he could discern a female figure creeping in by the great north gap, or public gateway. They met in the middle of the arena. Neither spoke just at first — there was no necessity for speech — and the poor woman leant against Henchard, who supported her in his arms.
"I don't drink," he said in a low, halting, apologetic voice. "You hear, Susan? — I don't drink now — I haven't since that night." Those were his first words.
He felt her bow her head in acknowledgment that she understood. After a minute or two he again began:
"If I had known you were living, Susan! But there was every reason to suppose you and the child were dead and gone. I took every possible step to find you — travelled — advertised. My opinion at last was that you had started for some colony with that man, and had been drowned on your voyage. Why did you keep silent like this?"
"O Michael! because of him — what other reason could there be? I thought I owed him faithfulness to the end of one of our lives — foolishly I believed there was something solemn and binding in the bargain; I thought that even in honour I dared not desert him when he had paid so much for me in good faith. I meet you now only as his widow — I consider myself that, and that I have no claim upon you. Had he not died I should never have come — never! Of that you may be sure."
"Ts-s-s! How could you be so simple?"
"I don't know. Yet it would have been very wicked — if I had not thought like that!" said Susan, almost crying.
"Yes — yes — so it would. It is only that which makes me feel 'ee an innocent woman. But — to lead me into this!"
"What, Michael?" she asked, alarmed.
"Why, this difficulty about our living together again, and Elizabeth-Jane. She cannot be told all — she would so despise us both that — I could not bear it!"
"That was why she was brought up in ignorance of you. I could not bear it either."
"Well — we must talk of a plan for keeping her in her present belief, and getting matters straight in spite of it. You have heard I am in a large way of business here — that I am Mayor of the town, and churchwarden, and I don't know what all?"
"Yes," she murmured.
"These things, as well as the dread of the girl discovering our disgrace, makes it necessary to act with extreme caution. So that I don't see how you two can return openly to my house as the wife and daughter I once treated badly, and banished from me; and there's the rub o't."
"We'll go away at once. I only came to see — "
"No, no, Susan; you are not to go — you mistake me!" he said with kindly severity. "I have thought of this plan: that you and Elizabeth take a cottage in the town as the widow Mrs. Newson and her daughter; that I meet you, court you, and marry you. Elizabeth-Jane coming to my house as my step-daughter. The thing is so natural and easy that it is half done in thinking o't. This would leave my shady, headstrong, disgraceful life as a young man absolutely unopened; the secret would be yours and mine only; and I should have the pleasure of seeing my own only child under my roof, as well as my wife."
"I am quite in your hands, Michael," she said meekly. "I came here for the sake of Elizabeth; for myself, if you tell me to leave again to-morrow morning, and never come near you more, I am content to go."
"Now, now; we don't want to hear that," said Henchard gently. "Of course you won't leave again. Think over the plan I have proposed for a few hours; and if you can't hit upon a better one we'll adopt it. I have to be away for a day or two on business, unfortunately; but during that time you can get lodgings — the only ones in the town fit for you are those over the china-shop in High Street — and you can also look for a cottage."
"If the lodgings are in High Street they are dear, I suppose?"
"Never mind — you MUST start genteel if our plan is to be carried out. Look to me for money. Have you enough till I come back?"