Chapter 21The seventy young women, of ages varying in the main from nineteen to one-and-twenty, though several were older, who at this date filled the species of nunnery known as the Training-School at Melchester, formed a very mixed community, which included the daughters of mechanics, curates, surgeons, shopkeepers, farmers, dairy-men, soldiers, sailors, and villagers. They sat in the large school-room of the establishment on the evening previously described, and word was passed round that Sue Bridehead had not come in at closing-time.
`She went out with her young man,' said a second-year's student, who knew about young men. `And Miss Traceley saw her at the station with him. She'll have it hot when she does come.'
`She said he was her cousin,' observed a youthful new girl.
`That excuse has been made a little too often in this school to be effectual in saving our souls,' said the head girl of the year, drily.
The fact was that, only twelve months before, there had occurred a lamentable seduction of one of the pupils who had made the same statement in order to gain meetings with her lover. The affair had created a scandal, and the management had consequently been rough on cousins ever since.
At nine o'clock the names were called, Sue's being pronounced three times sonorously by Miss Traceley without eliciting an answer.
At a quarter past nine the seventy stood up to sing the `Evening Hymn,' and then knelt down to prayers. After prayers they went in to supper, and every girl's thought was, Where is Sue Bridehead? Some of the students, who had seen Jude from the window, felt that they would not mind risking her punishment for the pleasure of being kissed by such a kindly-faced young men. Hardly one among them believed in the cousinship.
Half an hour later they all lay in their cubicles, their tender feminine faces upturned to the flaring gas-jets which at intervals stretched down the long dormitories, every face bearing the legend `The Weaker' upon it, as the penalty of the sex wherein they were moulded, which by no possible exertion of their willing hearts and abilities could be made strong while the inexorable laws of nature remain what they are. They formed a pretty, suggestive, pathetic sight, of whose pathos and beauty they were themselves unconscious, and would not discover till, amid the storms and strains of after-years, with their injustice, loneliness, child-bearing, and bereavement, their minds would revert to this experience as to something which had been allowed to slip past them insufficiently regarded.
One of the mistresses came in to turn out the lights, and before doing so gave a final glance at Sue's cot, which remained empty, and at her little dressing-table at the foot, which, like all the rest, was ornamented with various girlish trifles, framed photographs being not the least conspicuous among them. Sue's table had a moderate show, two men in their filigree and velvet frames standing together beside her looking- glass.
`Who are these men - did she ever say?' asked the mistress. `Strictly speaking, relations' portraits only are allowed on these tables, you know.'
`One - the middle-aged man,' said a student in the next bed - `is the schoolmaster she served under - Mr. Phillotson.'
`And the other - this undergraduate in cap and gown - who is he?'
`He is a friend, or was. She has never told his name.'
`Was it either of these two who came for her?'
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