On a thyme-scented, bird-hatching morning in May, between two and three years after the return from Trantridge—silent, reconstructive years for Tess Durbeyfield—she left her home for the second time.
Having packed up her luggage so that it could be sent to her later, she started in a hired trap for the little town of Stourcastle, through which it was necessary to pass on her journey, now in a direction almost opposite to that of her first adventuring. On the curve of the nearest hill she looked back regretfully at Marlott and her father’s house, although she had been so anxious to get away.
Her kindred dwelling there would probably continue their daily lives as heretofore, with no great diminution of pleasure in their consciousness, although she would be far off, and they deprived of her smile. In a few days the children would engage in their games as merrily as ever, without the sense of any gap left by her departure. This leaving of the younger children she had decided to be for the best; were she to remain they would probably gain less good by her precepts than harm by her example.
She went through Stourcastle without pausing and onward to a junction of highways, where she could await a carrier’s van that ran to the south-west; for the railways which engirdled this interior tract of country had never yet struck across it. While waiting, however, there came along a farmer in his spring cart, driving approximately in the direction that she wished to pursue. Though he was a stranger to her she accepted his offer of a seat beside him, ignoring that its motive was a mere tribute to her countenance. He was going to Weatherbury, and by accompanying him thither she could walk the remainder of the distance instead of travelling in the van by way of Casterbridge.
Tess did not stop at Weatherbury, after this long drive, further than to make a slight nondescript meal at noon at a cottage to which the farmer recommended her. Thence she started on foot, basket in hand, to reach the wide upland of heath dividing this district from the low-lying meads of a further valley in which the dairy stood that was the aim and end of her day’s pilgrimage.
Tess had never before visited this part of the country, and yet she felt akin to the landscape. Not so very far to the left of her she could discern a dark patch in the scenery, which inquiry confirmed her in supposing to be trees marking the environs of Kingsbere—in the church of which parish the bones of her ancestors—her useless ancestors—lay entombed.
She had no admiration for them now; she almost hated them for the dance they had led her; not a thing of all that had been theirs did she retain but the old seal and spoon. “Pooh—I have as much of mother as father in me!” she said. “All my prettiness comes from her, and she was only a dairymaid.”
The journey over the intervening uplands and lowlands of Egdon, when she reached them, was a more troublesome walk than she had anticipated, the distance being actually but a few miles. It was two hours, owing to sundry wrong turnings, ere she found herself on a summit commanding the long-sought-for vale, the Valley of the Great Dairies, the valley in which milk and butter grew to rankness, and were produced more profusely, if less delicately, than at her home—the verdant plain so well watered by the river Var or Froom.
It was intrinsically different from the Vale of Little Dairies, Blackmoor Vale, which, save during her disastrous sojourn at Trantridge, she had exclusively known till now. The world was drawn to a larger pattern here. The enclosures numbered fifty acres instead of ten, the farmsteads were more extended, the groups of cattle formed tribes hereabout; there only families. These myriads of cows stretching under her eyes from the far east to the far west outnumbered any she had ever seen at one glance before. The green lea was speckled as thickly with them as a canvas by Van Alsloot or Sallaert with burghers. The ripe hue of the red and dun kine absorbed the evening sunlight, which the white-coated animals returned to the eye in rays almost dazzling, even at the distant elevation on which she stood.
The bird’s-eye perspective before her was not so luxuriantly beautiful, perhaps, as that other one which she knew so well; yet it was more cheering. It lacked the intensely blue atmosphere of the rival vale, and its heavy soils and scents; the new air was clear, bracing, ethereal. The river itself, which nourished the grass and cows of these renowned dairies, flowed not like the streams in Blackmoor. Those were slow, silent, often turbid; flowing over beds of mud into which the incautious wader might sink and vanish unawares. The Froom waters were clear as the pure River of Life shown to the Evangelist, rapid as the shadow of a cloud, with pebbly shallows that prattled to the sky all day long. There the water-flower was the lily; the crow-foot here.
Either the change in the quality of the air from heavy to light, or the sense of being amid new scenes where there were no invidious eyes upon her, sent up her spirits wonderfully. Her hopes mingled with the sunshine in an ideal photosphere which surrounded her as she bounded along against the soft south wind. She heard a pleasant voice in every breeze, and in every bird’s note seemed to lurk a joy.
Her face had latterly changed with changing states of mind, continually fluctuating between beauty and ordinariness, according as the thoughts were gay or grave. One day she was pink and flawless; another pale and tragical. When she was pink she was feeling less than when pale; her more perfect beauty accorded with her less elevated mood; her more intense mood with her less perfect beauty. It was her best face physically that was now set against the south wind.
The irresistible, universal, automatic tendency to find sweet pleasure somewhere, which pervades all life, from the meanest to the highest, had at length mastered Tess. Being even now only a young woman of twenty, one who mentally and sentimentally had not finished growing, it was impossible that any event should have left upon her an impression that was not in time capable of transmutation.
And thus her spirits, and her thankfulness, and her hopes, rose higher and higher. She tried several ballads, but found them inadequate; till, recollecting the psalter that her eyes had so often wandered over of a Sunday morning before she had eaten of the tree of knowledge, she chanted: “O ye Sun and Moon … O ye Stars … ye Green Things upon the Earth … ye Fowls of the Air … Beasts and Cattle … Children of Men … bless ye the Lord, praise Him and magnify Him forever!”
She suddenly stopped and murmured: “But perhaps I don’t quite know the Lord as yet.”
And probably the half-unconscious rhapsody was a Fetishistic utterance in a Monotheistic setting; women whose chief companions are the forms and forces of outdoor Nature retain in their souls far more of the Pagan fantasy of their remote forefathers than of the systematized religion taught their race at later date. However, Tess found at least approximate expression for her feelings in the old Benedicite that she had lisped from infancy; and it was enough. Such high contentment with such a slight initial performance as that of having started towards a means of independent living was a part of the Durbeyfield temperament. Tess really wished to walk uprightly, while her father did nothing of the kind; but she resembled him in being content with immediate and small achievements, and in having no mind for laborious effort towards such petty social advancement as could alone be effected by a family so heavily handicapped as the once powerful d’Urbervilles were now.
There was, it might be said, the energy of her mother’s unexpended family, as well as the natural energy of Tess’s years, rekindled after the experience which had so overwhelmed her for the time. Let the truth be told—women do as a rule live through such humiliations, and regain their spirits, and again look about them with an interested eye. While there’s life there’s hope is a conviction not so entirely unknown to the “betrayed” as some amiable theorists would have us believe.
Tess Durbeyfield, then, in good heart, and full of zest for life, descended the Egdon slopes lower and lower towards the dairy of her pilgrimage.
The marked difference, in the final particular, between the rival vales now showed itself. The secret of Blackmoor was best discovered from the heights around; to read aright the valley before her it was necessary to descend into its midst. When Tess had accomplished this feat she found herself to be standing on a carpeted level, which stretched to the east and west as far as the eye could reach.
The river had stolen from the higher tracts and brought in particles to the vale all this horizontal land; and now, exhausted, aged, and attenuated, lay serpentining along through the midst of its former spoils.
Not quite sure of her direction, Tess stood still upon the hemmed expanse of verdant flatness, like a fly on a billiard-table of indefinite length, and of no more consequence to the surroundings than that fly. The sole effect of her presence upon the placid valley so far had been to excite the mind of a solitary heron, which, after descending to the ground not far from her path, stood with neck erect, looking at her.
Suddenly there arose from all parts of the lowland a prolonged and repeated call—“Waow! waow! waow!”
From the furthest east to the furthest west the cries spread as if by contagion, accompanied in some cases by the barking of a dog. It was not the expression of the valley’s consciousness that beautiful Tess had arrived, but the ordinary announcement of milking-time—half-past four o’clock, when the dairymen set about getting in the cows.
The red and white herd nearest at hand, which had been phlegmatically waiting for the call, now trooped towards the steading in the background, their great bags of milk swinging under them as they walked. Tess followed slowly in their rear, and entered the barton by the open gate through which they had entered before her. Long thatched sheds stretched round the enclosure, their slopes encrusted with vivid green moss, and their eaves supported by wooden posts rubbed to a glossy smoothness by the flanks of infinite cows and calves of bygone years, now passed to an oblivion almost inconceivable in its profundity. Between the post were ranged the milchers, each exhibiting herself at the present moment to a whimsical eye in the rear as a circle on two stalks, down the centre of which a switch moved pendulum-wise; while the sun, lowering itself behind this patient row, threw their shadows accurately inwards upon the wall. Thus it threw shadows of these obscure and homely figures every evening with as much care over each contour as if it had been the profile of a court beauty on a palace wall; copied them as diligently as it had copied Olympian shapes on marble façades long ago, or the outline of Alexander, Caesar, and the Pharaohs.
They were the less restful cows that were stalled. Those that would stand still of their own will were milked in the middle of the yard, where many of such better behaved ones stood waiting now—all prime milchers, such as were seldom seen out of this valley, and not always within it; nourished by the succulent feed which the water-meads supplied at this prime season of the year. Those of them that were spotted with white reflected the sunshine in dazzling brilliancy, and the polished brass knobs of their horns glittered with something of military display. Their large-veined udders hung ponderous as sandbags, the teats sticking out like the legs of a gipsy’s crock; and as each animal lingered for her turn to arrive the milk oozed forth and fell in drops to the ground.
The dairymaids and men had flocked down from their cottages and out of the dairy-house with the arrival of the cows from the meads; the maids walking in pattens, not on account of the weather, but to keep their shoes above the mulch of the barton. Each girl sat down on her three-legged stool, her face sideways, her right cheek resting against the cow, and looked musingly along the animal’s flank at Tess as she approached. The male milkers, with hat-brims turned down, resting flat on their foreheads and gazing on the ground, did not observe her.
One of these was a sturdy middle-aged man—whose long white “pinner” was somewhat finer and cleaner than the wraps of the others, and whose jacket underneath had a presentable marketing aspect—the master-dairyman, of whom she was in quest, his double character as a working milker and butter maker here during six days, and on the seventh as a man in shining broad-cloth in his family pew at church, being so marked as to have inspired a rhyme:
All the week:
On Sundays Mister Richard Crick.
Seeing Tess standing at gaze he went across to her.
The majority of dairymen have a cross manner at milking time, but it happened that Mr Crick was glad to get a new hand—for the days were busy ones now—and he received her warmly; inquiring for her mother and the rest of the family—(though this as a matter of form merely, for in reality he had not been aware of Mrs Durbeyfield’s existence till apprised of the fact by a brief business-letter about Tess).
“Oh—ay, as a lad I knowed your part o’ the country very well,” he said terminatively. “Though I’ve never been there since. And a aged woman of ninety that use to live nigh here, but is dead and gone long ago, told me that a family of some such name as yours in Blackmoor Vale came originally from these parts, and that ’twere a old ancient race that had all but perished off the earth—though the new generations didn’t know it. But, Lord, I took no notice of the old woman’s ramblings, not I.”
“Oh no—it is nothing,” said Tess.
Then the talk was of business only.
“You can milk ’em clean, my maidy? I don’t want my cows going azew at this time o’ year.”
She reassured him on that point, and he surveyed her up and down. She had been staying indoors a good deal, and her complexion had grown delicate.
“Quite sure you can stand it? ’Tis comfortable enough here for rough folk; but we don’t live in a cowcumber frame.”
She declared that she could stand it, and her zest and willingness seemed to win him over.
“Well, I suppose you’ll want a dish o’ tay, or victuals of some sort, hey? Not yet? Well, do as ye like about it. But faith, if ’twas I, I should be as dry as a kex wi’ travelling so far.”
“I’ll begin milking now, to get my hand in,” said Tess.
She drank a little milk as temporary refreshment—to the surprise—indeed, slight contempt—of Dairyman Crick, to whose mind it had apparently never occurred that milk was good as a beverage.
“Oh, if ye can swaller that, be it so,” he said indifferently, while holding up the pail that she sipped from. “’Tis what I hain’t touched for years—not I. Rot the stuff; it would lie in my innerds like lead. You can try your hand upon she,” he pursued, nodding to the nearest cow. “Not but what she do milk rather hard. We’ve hard ones and we’ve easy ones, like other folks. However, you’ll find out that soon enough.”
When Tess had changed her bonnet for a hood, and was really on her stool under the cow, and the milk was squirting from her fists into the pail, she appeared to feel that she really had laid a new foundation for her future. The conviction bred serenity, her pulse slowed, and she was able to look about her.
The milkers formed quite a little battalion of men and maids, the men operating on the hard-teated animals, the maids on the kindlier natures. It was a large dairy. There were nearly a hundred milchers under Crick’s management, all told; and of the herd the master-dairyman milked six or eight with his own hands, unless away from home. These were the cows that milked hardest of all; for his journey-milkmen being more or less casually hired, he would not entrust this half-dozen to their treatment, lest, from indifference, they should not milk them fully; nor to the maids, lest they should fail in the same way for lack of finger-grip; with the result that in course of time the cows would “go azew”—that is, dry up. It was not the loss for the moment that made slack milking so serious, but that with the decline of demand there came decline, and ultimately cessation, of supply.
After Tess had settled down to her cow there was for a time no talk in the barton, and not a sound interfered with the purr of the milk-jets into the numerous pails, except a momentary exclamation to one or other of the beasts requesting her to turn round or stand still. The only movements were those of the milkers’ hands up and down, and the swing of the cows’ tails. Thus they all worked on, encompassed by the vast flat mead which extended to either slope of the valley—a level landscape compounded of old landscapes long forgotten, and, no doubt, differing in character very greatly from the landscape they composed now.
“To my thinking,” said the dairyman, rising suddenly from a cow he had just finished off, snatching up his three-legged stool in one hand and the pail in the other, and moving on to the next hard-yielder in his vicinity, “to my thinking, the cows don’t gie down their milk to-day as usual. Upon my life, if Winker do begin keeping back like this, she’ll not be worth going under by midsummer.”
“’Tis because there’s a new hand come among us,” said Jonathan Kail. “I’ve noticed such things afore.”
“To be sure. It may be so. I didn’t think o’t.”
“I’ve been told that it goes up into their horns at such times,” said a dairymaid.
“Well, as to going up into their horns,” replied Dairyman Crick dubiously, as though even witchcraft might be limited by anatomical possibilities, “I couldn’t say; I certainly could not. But as nott cows will keep it back as well as the horned ones, I don’t quite agree to it. Do ye know that riddle about the nott cows, Jonathan? Why do nott cows give less milk in a year than horned?”
“I don’t!” interposed the milkmaid, “Why do they?”
“Because there bain’t so many of ’em,” said the dairyman. “Howsomever, these gam’sters do certainly keep back their milk to-day. Folks, we must lift up a stave or two—that’s the only cure for’t.”
Songs were often resorted to in dairies hereabout as an enticement to the cows when they showed signs of withholding their usual yield; and the band of milkers at this request burst into melody—in purely business-like tones, it is true, and with no great spontaneity; the result, according to their own belief, being a decided improvement during the song’s continuance. When they had gone through fourteen or fifteen verses of a cheerful ballad about a murderer who was afraid to go to bed in the dark because he saw certain brimstone flames around him, one of the male milkers said—
“I wish singing on the stoop didn’t use up so much of a man’s wind! You should get your harp, sir; not but what a fiddle is best.”
Tess, who had given ear to this, thought the words were addressed to the dairyman, but she was wrong. A reply, in the shape of “Why?” came as it were out of the belly of a dun cow in the stalls; it had been spoken by a milker behind the animal, whom she had not hitherto perceived.
“Oh yes; there’s nothing like a fiddle,” said the dairyman. “Though I do think that bulls are more moved by a tune than cows—at least that’s my experience. Once there was an old aged man over at Mellstock—William Dewy by name—one of the family that used to do a good deal of business as tranters over there—Jonathan, do ye mind?—I knowed the man by sight as well as I know my own brother, in a manner of speaking. Well, this man was a coming home along from a wedding, where he had been playing his fiddle, one fine moonlight night, and for shortness’ sake he took a cut across Forty-acres, a field lying that way, where a bull was out to grass. The bull seed William, and took after him, horns aground, begad; and though William runned his best, and hadn’t much drink in him (considering ’twas a wedding, and the folks well off), he found he’d never reach the fence and get over in time to save himself. Well, as a last thought, he pulled out his fiddle as he runned, and struck up a jig, turning to the bull, and backing towards the corner. The bull softened down, and stood still, looking hard at William Dewy, who fiddled on and on; till a sort of a smile stole over the bull’s face. But no sooner did William stop his playing and turn to get over hedge than the bull would stop his smiling and lower his horns towards the seat of William’s breeches. Well, William had to turn about and play on, willy-nilly; and ’twas only three o’clock in the world, and ’a knowed that nobody would come that way for hours, and he so leery and tired that ’a didn’t know what to do. When he had scraped till about four o’clock he felt that he verily would have to give over soon, and he said to himself, ‘There’s only this last tune between me and eternal welfare! Heaven save me, or I’m a done man.’ Well, then he called to mind how he’d seen the cattle kneel o’ Christmas Eves in the dead o’ night. It was not Christmas Eve then, but it came into his head to play a trick upon the bull. So he broke into the ’Tivity Hymm, just as at Christmas carol-singing; when, lo and behold, down went the bull on his bended knees, in his ignorance, just as if ’twere the true ’Tivity night and hour. As soon as his horned friend were down, William turned, clinked off like a long-dog, and jumped safe over hedge, before the praying bull had got on his feet again to take after him. William used to say that he’d seen a man look a fool a good many times, but never such a fool as that bull looked when he found his pious feelings had been played upon, and ’twas not Christmas Eve. Yes, William Dewy, that was the man’s name; and I can tell you to a foot where’s he a-lying in Mellstock Churchyard at this very moment—just between the second yew-tree and the north aisle.”
“It’s a curious story; it carries us back to medieval times, when faith was a living thing!”
The remark, singular for a dairy-yard, was murmured by the voice behind the dun cow; but as nobody understood the reference, no notice was taken, except that the narrator seemed to think it might imply scepticism as to his tale.
“Well, ’tis quite true, sir, whether or no. I knowed the man well.”
“Oh yes; I have no doubt of it,” said the person behind the dun cow.
Tess’s attention was thus attracted to the dairyman’s interlocutor, of whom she could see but the merest patch, owing to his burying his head so persistently in the flank of the milcher. She could not understand why he should be addressed as “sir” even by the dairyman himself. But no explanation was discernible; he remained under the cow long enough to have milked three, uttering a private ejaculation now and then, as if he could not get on.
“Take it gentle, sir; take it gentle,” said the dairyman. “’Tis knack, not strength, that does it.”
“So I find,” said the other, standing up at last and stretching his arms. “I think I have finished her, however, though she made my fingers ache.”
Tess could then see him at full length. He wore the ordinary white pinner and leather leggings of a dairy-farmer when milking, and his boots were clogged with the mulch of the yard; but this was all his local livery. Beneath it was something educated, reserved, subtle, sad, differing.
But the details of his aspect were temporarily thrust aside by the discovery that he was one whom she had seen before. Such vicissitudes had Tess passed through since that time that for a moment she could not remember where she had met him; and then it flashed upon her that he was the pedestrian who had joined in the club-dance at Marlott—the passing stranger who had come she knew not whence, had danced with others but not with her, and slightingly left her, and gone on his way with his friends.
The flood of memories brought back by this revival of an incident anterior to her troubles produced a momentary dismay lest, recognizing her also, he should by some means discover her story. But it passed away when she found no sign of remembrance in him. She saw by degrees that since their first and only encounter his mobile face had grown more thoughtful, and had acquired a young man’s shapely moustache and beard—the latter of the palest straw colour where it began upon his cheeks, and deepening to a warm brown farther from its root. Under his linen milking-pinner he wore a dark velveteen jacket, cord breeches and gaiters, and a starched white shirt. Without the milking-gear nobody could have guessed what he was. He might with equal probability have been an eccentric landowner or a gentlemanly ploughman. That he was but a novice at dairy work she had realized in a moment, from the time he had spent upon the milking of one cow.
Meanwhile many of the milkmaids had said to one another of the newcomer, “How pretty she is!” with something of real generosity and admiration, though with a half hope that the auditors would qualify the assertion—which, strictly speaking, they might have done, prettiness being an inexact definition of what struck the eye in Tess. When the milking was finished for the evening they straggled indoors, where Mrs Crick, the dairyman’s wife—who was too respectable to go out milking herself, and wore a hot stuff gown in warm weather because the dairymaids wore prints—was giving an eye to the leads and things.
Only two or three of the maids, Tess learnt, slept in the dairy-house besides herself, most of the helpers going to their homes. She saw nothing at supper-time of the superior milker who had commented on the story, and asked no questions about him, the remainder of the evening being occupied in arranging her place in the bed-chamber. It was a large room over the milk-house, some thirty feet long; the sleeping-cots of the other three indoor milkmaids being in the same apartment. They were blooming young women, and, except one, rather older than herself. By bedtime Tess was thoroughly tired, and fell asleep immediately.
But one of the girls, who occupied an adjoining bed, was more wakeful than Tess, and would insist upon relating to the latter various particulars of the homestead into which she had just entered. The girl’s whispered words mingled with the shades, and, to Tess’s drowsy mind, they seemed to be generated by the darkness in which they floated.
“Mr Angel Clare—he that is learning milking, and that plays the harp—never says much to us. He is a pa’son’s son, and is too much taken up wi’ his own thoughts to notice girls. He is the dairyman’s pupil—learning farming in all its branches. He has learnt sheep-farming at another place, and he’s now mastering dairy-work…. Yes, he is quite the gentleman-born. His father is the Reverend Mr Clare at Emminster—a good many miles from here.”
“Oh—I have heard of him,” said her companion, now awake. “A very earnest clergyman, is he not?”
“Yes—that he is—the earnestest man in all Wessex, they say—the last of the old Low Church sort, they tell me—for all about here be what they call High. All his sons, except our Mr Clare, be made pa’sons too.”
Tess had not at this hour the curiosity to ask why the present Mr Clare was not made a parson like his brethren, and gradually fell asleep again, the words of her informant coming to her along with the smell of the cheeses in the adjoining cheeseloft, and the measured dripping of the whey from the wrings downstairs.
Angel Clare rises out of the past not altogether as a distinct figure, but as an appreciative voice, a long regard of fixed, abstracted eyes, and a mobility of mouth somewhat too small and delicately lined for a man’s, though with an unexpectedly firm close of the lower lip now and then; enough to do away with any inference of indecision. Nevertheless, something nebulous, preoccupied, vague, in his bearing and regard, marked him as one who probably had no very definite aim or concern about his material future. Yet as a lad people had said of him that he was one who might do anything if he tried.
He was the youngest son of his father, a poor parson at the other end of the county, and had arrived at Talbothays Dairy as a six months’ pupil, after going the round of some other farms, his object being to acquire a practical skill in the various processes of farming, with a view either to the Colonies or the tenure of a home-farm, as circumstances might decide.
His entry into the ranks of the agriculturists and breeders was a step in the young man’s career which had been anticipated neither by himself nor by others.
Mr Clare the elder, whose first wife had died and left him a daughter, married a second late in life. This lady had somewhat unexpectedly brought him three sons, so that between Angel, the youngest, and his father the Vicar there seemed to be almost a missing generation. Of these boys the aforesaid Angel, the child of his old age, was the only son who had not taken a University degree, though he was the single one of them whose early promise might have done full justice to an academical training.
Some two or three years before Angel’s appearance at the Marlott dance, on a day when he had left school and was pursuing his studies at home, a parcel came to the Vicarage from the local bookseller’s, directed to the Reverend James Clare. The Vicar having opened it and found it to contain a book, read a few pages; whereupon he jumped up from his seat and went straight to the shop with the book under his arm.
“Why has this been sent to my house?” he asked peremptorily, holding up the volume.
“It was ordered, sir.”
“Not by me, or any one belonging to me, I am happy to say.”
The shopkeeper looked into his order-book.
“Oh, it has been misdirected, sir,” he said. “It was ordered by Mr Angel Clare, and should have been sent to him.”
Mr Clare winced as if he had been struck. He went home pale and dejected, and called Angel into his study.
“Look into this book, my boy,” he said. “What do you know about it?”
“I ordered it,” said Angel simply.
“How can you think of reading it?”
“How can I? Why—it is a system of philosophy. There is no more moral, or even religious, work published.”
“Yes—moral enough; I don’t deny that. But religious!—and for you, who intend to be a minister of the Gospel!”
“Since you have alluded to the matter, father,” said the son, with anxious thought upon his face, “I should like to say, once for all, that I should prefer not to take Orders. I fear I could not conscientiously do so. I love the Church as one loves a parent. I shall always have the warmest affection for her. There is no institution for whose history I have a deeper admiration; but I cannot honestly be ordained her minister, as my brothers are, while she refuses to liberate her mind from an untenable redemptive theolatry.”
It had never occurred to the straightforward and simple-minded Vicar that one of his own flesh and blood could come to this! He was stultified, shocked, paralysed. And if Angel were not going to enter the Church, what was the use of sending him to Cambridge? The University as a step to anything but ordination seemed, to this man of fixed ideas, a preface without a volume. He was a man not merely religious, but devout; a firm believer—not as the phrase is now elusively construed by theological thimble-riggers in the Church and out of it, but in the old and ardent sense of the Evangelical school: one who could
That the Eternal and Divine
Did, eighteen centuries ago
In very truth…
Angel’s father tried argument, persuasion, entreaty.
“No, father; I cannot underwrite Article Four (leave alone the rest), taking it ‘in the literal and grammatical sense’ as required by the Declaration; and, therefore, I can’t be a parson in the present state of affairs,” said Angel. “My whole instinct in matters of religion is towards reconstruction; to quote your favorite Epistle to the Hebrews, ‘the removing of those things that are shaken, as of things that are made, that those things which cannot be shaken may remain.’”
His father grieved so deeply that it made Angel quite ill to see him.
“What is the good of your mother and me economizing and stinting ourselves to give you a University education, if it is not to be used for the honour and glory of God?” his father repeated.
“Why, that it may be used for the honour and glory of man, father.”
Perhaps if Angel had persevered he might have gone to Cambridge like his brothers. But the Vicar’s view of that seat of learning as a stepping-stone to Orders alone was quite a family tradition; and so rooted was the idea in his mind that perseverance began to appear to the sensitive son akin to an intent to misappropriate a trust, and wrong the pious heads of the household, who had been and were, as his father had hinted, compelled to exercise much thrift to carry out this uniform plan of education for the three young men.
“I will do without Cambridge,” said Angel at last. “I feel that I have no right to go there in the circumstances.”
The effects of this decisive debate were not long in showing themselves. He spent years and years in desultory studies, undertakings, and meditations; he began to evince considerable indifference to social forms and observances. The material distinctions of rank and wealth he increasingly despised. Even the “good old family” (to use a favourite phrase of a late local worthy) had no aroma for him unless there were good new resolutions in its representatives. As a balance to these austerities, when he went to live in London to see what the world was like, and with a view to practising a profession or business there, he was carried off his head, and nearly entrapped by a woman much older than himself, though luckily he escaped not greatly the worse for the experience.
Early association with country solitudes had bred in him an unconquerable, and almost unreasonable, aversion to modern town life, and shut him out from such success as he might have aspired to by following a mundane calling in the impracticability of the spiritual one. But something had to be done; he had wasted many valuable years; and having an acquaintance who was starting on a thriving life as a Colonial farmer, it occurred to Angel that this might be a lead in the right direction. Farming, either in the Colonies, America, or at home—farming, at any rate, after becoming well qualified for the business by a careful apprenticeship—that was a vocation which would probably afford an independence without the sacrifice of what he valued even more than a competency—intellectual liberty.
So we find Angel Clare at six-and-twenty here at Talbothays as a student of kine, and, as there were no houses near at hand in which he could get a comfortable lodging, a boarder at the dairyman’s.
His room was an immense attic which ran the whole length of the dairy-house. It could only be reached by a ladder from the cheese-loft, and had been closed up for a long time till he arrived and selected it as his retreat. Here Clare had plenty of space, and could often be heard by the dairy-folk pacing up and down when the household had gone to rest. A portion was divided off at one end by a curtain, behind which was his bed, the outer part being furnished as a homely sitting-room.
At first he lived up above entirely, reading a good deal, and strumming upon an old harp which he had bought at a sale, saying when in a bitter humour that he might have to get his living by it in the streets some day. But he soon preferred to read human nature by taking his meals downstairs in the general dining-kitchen, with the dairyman and his wife, and the maids and men, who all together formed a lively assembly; for though but few milking hands slept in the house, several joined the family at meals. The longer Clare resided here the less objection had he to his company, and the more did he like to share quarters with them in common.
Much to his surprise he took, indeed, a real delight in their companionship. The conventional farm-folk of his imagination—personified in the newspaper-press by the pitiable dummy known as Hodge—were obliterated after a few days’ residence. At close quarters no Hodge was to be seen. At first, it is true, when Clare’s intelligence was fresh from a contrasting society, these friends with whom he now hobnobbed seemed a little strange. Sitting down as a level member of the dairyman’s household seemed at the outset an undignified proceeding. The ideas, the modes, the surroundings, appeared retrogressive and unmeaning. But with living on there, day after day, the acute sojourner became conscious of a new aspect in the spectacle. Without any objective change whatever, variety had taken the place of monotonousness. His host and his host’s household, his men and his maids, as they became intimately known to Clare, began to differentiate themselves as in a chemical process. The thought of Pascal’s was brought home to him: “A mesure qu’on a plus d’esprit, on trouve qu’il y a plus d’hommes originaux. Les gens du commun ne trouvent pas de différence entre les hommes.” The typical and unvarying Hodge ceased to exist. He had been disintegrated into a number of varied fellow-creatures—beings of many minds, beings infinite in difference; some happy, many serene, a few depressed, one here and there bright even to genius, some stupid, others wanton, others austere; some mutely Miltonic, some potentially Cromwellian—into men who had private views of each other, as he had of his friends; who could applaud or condemn each other, amuse or sadden themselves by the contemplation of each other’s foibles or vices; men every one of whom walked in his own individual way the road to dusty death.
Unexpectedly he began to like the outdoor life for its own sake, and for what it brought, apart from its bearing on his own proposed career. Considering his position he became wonderfully free from the chronic melancholy which is taking hold of the civilized races with the decline of belief in a beneficent Power. For the first time of late years he could read as his musings inclined him, without any eye to cramming for a profession, since the few farming handbooks which he deemed it desirable to master occupied him but little time.
He grew away from old associations, and saw something new in life and humanity. Secondarily, he made close acquaintance with phenomena which he had before known but darkly—the seasons in their moods, morning and evening, night and noon, winds in their different tempers, trees, waters and mists, shades and silences, and the voices of inanimate things.
The early mornings were still sufficiently cool to render a fire acceptable in the large room wherein they breakfasted; and, by Mrs Crick’s orders, who held that he was too genteel to mess at their table, it was Angel Clare’s custom to sit in the yawning chimney-corner during the meal, his cup-and-saucer and plate being placed on a hinged flap at his elbow. The light from the long, wide, mullioned window opposite shone in upon his nook, and, assisted by a secondary light of cold blue quality which shone down the chimney, enabled him to read there easily whenever disposed to do so. Between Clare and the window was the table at which his companions sat, their munching profiles rising sharp against the panes; while to the side was the milk-house door, through which were visible the rectangular leads in rows, full to the brim with the morning’s milk. At the further end the great churn could be seen revolving, and its slip-slopping heard—the moving power being discernible through the window in the form of a spiritless horse walking in a circle and driven by a boy.
For several days after Tess’s arrival Clare, sitting abstractedly reading from some book, periodical, or piece of music just come by post, hardly noticed that she was present at table. She talked so little, and the other maids talked so much, that the babble did not strike him as possessing a new note, and he was ever in the habit of neglecting the particulars of an outward scene for the general impression. One day, however, when he had been conning one of his music-scores, and by force of imagination was hearing the tune in his head, he lapsed into listlessness, and the music-sheet rolled to the hearth. He looked at the fire of logs, with its one flame pirouetting on the top in a dying dance after the breakfast-cooking and boiling, and it seemed to jig to his inward tune; also at the two chimney crooks dangling down from the cotterel, or cross-bar, plumed with soot, which quivered to the same melody; also at the half-empty kettle whining an accompaniment. The conversation at the table mixed in with his phantasmal orchestra till he thought: “What a fluty voice one of those milkmaids has! I suppose it is the new one.”
Clare looked round upon her, seated with the others.
She was not looking towards him. Indeed, owing to his long silence, his presence in the room was almost forgotten.
“I don’t know about ghosts,” she was saying; “but I do know that our souls can be made to go outside our bodies when we are alive.”
The dairyman turned to her with his mouth full, his eyes charged with serious inquiry, and his great knife and fork (breakfasts were breakfasts here) planted erect on the table, like the beginning of a gallows.
“What—really now? And is it so, maidy?” he said.
“A very easy way to feel ’em go,” continued Tess, “is to lie on the grass at night and look straight up at some big bright star; and, by fixing your mind upon it, you will soon find that you are hundreds and hundreds o’ miles away from your body, which you don’t seem to want at all.”
The dairyman removed his hard gaze from Tess, and fixed it on his wife.
“Now that’s a rum thing, Christianer—hey? To think o’ the miles I’ve vamped o’ starlight nights these last thirty year, courting, or trading, or for doctor, or for nurse, and yet never had the least notion o’ that till now, or feeled my soul rise so much as an inch above my shirt-collar.”
The general attention being drawn to her, including that of the dairyman’s pupil, Tess flushed, and remarking evasively that it was only a fancy, resumed her breakfast.
Clare continued to observe her. She soon finished her eating, and having a consciousness that Clare was regarding her, began to trace imaginary patterns on the tablecloth with her forefinger with the constraint of a domestic animal that perceives itself to be watched.
“What a fresh and virginal daughter of Nature that milkmaid is!” he said to himself.
And then he seemed to discern in her something that was familiar, something which carried him back into a joyous and unforeseeing past, before the necessity of taking thought had made the heavens gray. He concluded that he had beheld her before; where he could not tell. A casual encounter during some country ramble it certainly had been, and he was not greatly curious about it. But the circumstance was sufficient to lead him to select Tess in preference to the other pretty milkmaids when he wished to contemplate contiguous womankind.
In general the cows were milked as they presented themselves, without fancy or choice. But certain cows will show a fondness for a particular pair of hands, sometimes carrying this predilection so far as to refuse to stand at all except to their favourite, the pail of a stranger being unceremoniously kicked over.
It was Dairyman Crick’s rule to insist on breaking down these partialities and aversions by constant interchange, since otherwise, in the event of a milkman or maid going away from the dairy, he was placed in a difficulty. The maids’ private aims, however, were the reverse of the dairyman’s rule, the daily selection by each damsel of the eight or ten cows to which she had grown accustomed rendering the operation on their willing udders surprisingly easy and effortless.
Tess, like her compeers, soon discovered which of the cows had a preference for her style of manipulation, and her fingers having become delicate from the long domiciliary imprisonments to which she had subjected herself at intervals during the last two or three years, she would have been glad to meet the milchers’ views in this respect. Out of the whole ninety-five there were eight in particular—Dumpling, Fancy, Lofty, Mist, Old Pretty, Young Pretty, Tidy, and Loud—who, though the teats of one or two were as hard as carrots, gave down to her with a readiness that made her work on them a mere touch of the fingers. Knowing, however, the dairyman’s wish, she endeavoured conscientiously to take the animals just as they came, excepting the very hard yielders which she could not yet manage.
But she soon found a curious correspondence between the ostensibly chance position of the cows and her wishes in this matter, till she felt that their order could not be the result of accident. The dairyman’s pupil had lent a hand in getting the cows together of late, and at the fifth or sixth time she turned her eyes, as she rested against the cow, full of sly inquiry upon him.
“Mr Clare, you have ranged the cows!” she said, blushing; and in making the accusation, symptoms of a smile gently lifted her upper lip in spite of her, so as to show the tips of her teeth, the lower lip remaining severely still.
“Well, it makes no difference,” said he. “You will always be here to milk them.”
“Do you think so? I hope I shall! But I don’t know.”
She was angry with herself afterwards, thinking that he, unaware of her grave reasons for liking this seclusion, might have mistaken her meaning. She had spoken so earnestly to him, as if his presence were somehow a factor in her wish. Her misgiving was such that at dusk, when the milking was over, she walked in the garden alone, to continue her regrets that she had disclosed to him her discovery of his considerateness.
It was a typical summer evening in June, the atmosphere being in such delicate equilibrium and so transmissive that inanimate objects seemed endowed with two or three senses, if not five. There was no distinction between the near and the far, and an auditor felt close to everything within the horizon. The soundlessness impressed her as a positive entity rather than as the mere negation of noise. It was broken by the strumming of strings.
Tess had heard those notes in the attic above her head. Dim, flattened, constrained by their confinement, they had never appealed to her as now, when they wandered in the still air with a stark quality like that of nudity. To speak absolutely, both instrument and execution were poor; but the relative is all, and as she listened Tess, like a fascinated bird, could not leave the spot. Far from leaving she drew up towards the performer, keeping behind the hedge that he might not guess her presence.
The outskirt of the garden in which Tess found herself had been left uncultivated for some years, and was now damp and rank with juicy grass which sent up mists of pollen at a touch; and with tall blooming weeds emitting offensive smells—weeds whose red and yellow and purple hues formed a polychrome as dazzling as that of cultivated flowers. She went stealthily as a cat through this profusion of growth, gathering cuckoo-spittle on her skirts, cracking snails that were underfoot, staining her hands with thistle-milk and slug-slime, and rubbing off upon her naked arms sticky blights which, though snow-white on the apple-tree trunks, made madder stains on her skin; thus she drew quite near to Clare, still unobserved of him.
Tess was conscious of neither time nor space. The exaltation which she had described as being producible at will by gazing at a star came now without any determination of hers; she undulated upon the thin notes of the second-hand harp, and their harmonies passed like breezes through her, bringing tears into her eyes. The floating pollen seemed to be his notes made visible, and the dampness of the garden the weeping of the garden’s sensibility. Though near nightfall, the rank-smelling weed-flowers glowed as if they would not close for intentness, and the waves of colour mixed with the waves of sound.
The light which still shone was derived mainly from a large hole in the western bank of cloud; it was like a piece of day left behind by accident, dusk having closed in elsewhere. He concluded his plaintive melody, a very simple performance, demanding no great skill; and she waited, thinking another might be begun. But, tired of playing, he had desultorily come round the fence, and was rambling up behind her. Tess, her cheeks on fire, moved away furtively, as if hardly moving at all.
Angel, however, saw her light summer gown, and he spoke; his low tones reaching her, though he was some distance off.
“What makes you draw off in that way, Tess?” said he. “Are you afraid?”
“Oh no, sir—not of outdoor things; especially just now when the apple-blooth is falling, and everything is so green.”
“But you have your indoor fears—eh?”
“I couldn’t quite say.”
“The milk turning sour?”
“Life in general?”
“Ah—so have I, very often. This hobble of being alive is rather serious, don’t you think so?”
“It is—now you put it that way.”
“All the same, I shouldn’t have expected a young girl like you to see it so just yet. How is it you do?”
She maintained a hesitating silence.
“Come, Tess, tell me in confidence.”
She thought that he meant what were the aspects of things to her, and replied shyly—
“The trees have inquisitive eyes, haven’t they?—that is, seem as if they had. And the river says,—‘Why do ye trouble me with your looks?’ And you seem to see numbers of to-morrows just all in a line, the first of them the biggest and clearest, the others getting smaller and smaller as they stand farther away; but they all seem very fierce and cruel and as if they said, ‘I’m coming! Beware of me! Beware of me!’ … But you, sir, can raise up dreams with your music, and drive all such horrid fancies away!”
He was surprised to find this young woman—who though but a milkmaid had just that touch of rarity about her which might make her the envied of her housemates—shaping such sad imaginings. She was expressing in her own native phrases—assisted a little by her Sixth Standard training—feelings which might almost have been called those of the age—the ache of modernism. The perception arrested him less when he reflected that what are called advanced ideas are really in great part but the latest fashion in definition—a more accurate expression, by words in logy and ism, of sensations which men and women have vaguely grasped for centuries.
Still, it was strange that they should have come to her while yet so young; more than strange; it was impressive, interesting, pathetic. Not guessing the cause, there was nothing to remind him that experience is as to intensity, and not as to duration. Tess’s passing corporeal blight had been her mental harvest.
Tess, on her part, could not understand why a man of clerical family and good education, and above physical want, should look upon it as a mishap to be alive. For the unhappy pilgrim herself there was very good reason. But how could this admirable and poetic man ever have descended into the Valley of Humiliation, have felt with the man of Uz—as she herself had felt two or three years ago—“My soul chooseth strangling and death rather than my life. I loathe it; I would not live alway.”
It was true that he was at present out of his class. But she knew that was only because, like Peter the Great in a shipwright’s yard, he was studying what he wanted to know. He did not milk cows because he was obliged to milk cows, but because he was learning to be a rich and prosperous dairyman, landowner, agriculturist, and breeder of cattle. He would become an American or Australian Abraham, commanding like a monarch his flocks and his herds, his spotted and his ring-straked, his men-servants and his maids. At times, nevertheless, it did seem unaccountable to her that a decidedly bookish, musical, thinking young man should have chosen deliberately to be a farmer, and not a clergyman, like his father and brothers.
Thus, neither having the clue to the other’s secret, they were respectively puzzled at what each revealed, and awaited new knowledge of each other’s character and mood without attempting to pry into each other’s history.
Every day, every hour, brought to him one more little stroke of her nature, and to her one more of his. Tess was trying to lead a repressed life, but she little divined the strength of her own vitality.
At first Tess seemed to regard Angel Clare as an intelligence rather than as a man. As such she compared him with herself; and at every discovery of the abundance of his illuminations, of the distance between her own modest mental standpoint and the unmeasurable, Andean altitude of his, she became quite dejected, disheartened from all further effort on her own part whatever.
He observed her dejection one day, when he had casually mentioned something to her about pastoral life in ancient Greece. She was gathering the buds called “lords and ladies” from the bank while he spoke.
“Why do you look so woebegone all of a sudden?” he asked.
“Oh, ’tis only—about my own self,” she said, with a frail laugh of sadness, fitfully beginning to peel “a lady” meanwhile. “Just a sense of what might have been with me! My life looks as if it had been wasted for want of chances! When I see what you know, what you have read, and seen, and thought, I feel what a nothing I am! I’m like the poor Queen of Sheba who lived in the Bible. There is no more spirit in me.”
“Bless my soul, don’t go troubling about that! Why,” he said with some enthusiasm, “I should be only too glad, my dear Tess, to help you to anything in the way of history, or any line of reading you would like to take up—”
“It is a lady again,” interrupted she, holding out the bud she had peeled.
“I meant that there are always more ladies than lords when you come to peel them.”
“Never mind about the lords and ladies. Would you like to take up any course of study—history, for example?”
“Sometimes I feel I don’t want to know anything more about it than I know already.”
“Because what’s the use of learning that I am one of a long row only—finding out that there is set down in some old book somebody just like me, and to know that I shall only act her part; making me sad, that’s all. The best is not to remember that your nature and your past doings have been just like thousands’ and thousands’, and that your coming life and doings ’ll be like thousands’ and thousands’.”
“What, really, then, you don’t want to learn anything?”
“I shouldn’t mind learning why—why the sun do shine on the just and the unjust alike,” she answered, with a slight quaver in her voice. “But that’s what books will not tell me.”
“Tess, fie for such bitterness!” Of course he spoke with a conventional sense of duty only, for that sort of wondering had not been unknown to himself in bygone days. And as he looked at the unpracticed mouth and lips, he thought that such a daughter of the soil could only have caught up the sentiment by rote. She went on peeling the lords and ladies till Clare, regarding for a moment the wave-like curl of her lashes as they dropped with her bent gaze on her soft cheek, lingeringly went away. When he was gone she stood awhile, thoughtfully peeling the last bud; and then, awakening from her reverie, flung it and all the crowd of floral nobility impatiently on the ground, in an ebullition of displeasure with herself for her niaiseries, and with a quickening warmth in her heart of hearts.
How stupid he must think her! In an access of hunger for his good opinion she bethought herself of what she had latterly endeavoured to forget, so unpleasant had been its issues—the identity of her family with that of the knightly d’Urbervilles. Barren attribute as it was, disastrous as its discovery had been in many ways to her, perhaps Mr Clare, as a gentleman and a student of history, would respect her sufficiently to forget her childish conduct with the lords and ladies if he knew that those Purbeck-marble and alabaster people in Kingsbere Church really represented her own lineal forefathers; that she was no spurious d’Urberville, compounded of money and ambition like those at Trantridge, but true d’Urberville to the bone.
But, before venturing to make the revelation, dubious Tess indirectly sounded the dairyman as to its possible effect upon Mr Clare, by asking the former if Mr Clare had any great respect for old county families when they had lost all their money and land.
“Mr Clare,” said the dairyman emphatically, “is one of the most rebellest rozums you ever knowed—not a bit like the rest of his family; and if there’s one thing that he do hate more than another ’tis the notion of what’s called a’ old family. He says that it stands to reason that old families have done their spurt of work in past days, and can’t have anything left in ’em now. There’s the Billets and the Drenkhards and the Greys and the St Quintins and the Hardys and the Goulds, who used to own the lands for miles down this valley; you could buy ’em all up now for an old song a’most. Why, our little Retty Priddle here, you know, is one of the Paridelles—the old family that used to own lots o’ the lands out by King’s Hintock, now owned by the Earl o’ Wessex, afore even he or his was heard of. Well, Mr Clare found this out, and spoke quite scornful to the poor girl for days. ‘Ah!’ he says to her, ‘you’ll never make a good dairymaid! All your skill was used up ages ago in Palestine, and you must lie fallow for a thousand years to git strength for more deeds!’ A boy came here t’other day asking for a job, and said his name was Matt, and when we asked him his surname he said he’d never heard that ’a had any surname, and when we asked why, he said he supposed his folks hadn’t been ’stablished long enough. ‘Ah! you’re the very boy I want!’ says Mr Clare, jumping up and shaking hands wi’en; ‘I’ve great hopes of you;’ and gave him half-a-crown. O no! he can’t stomach old families!”
After hearing this caricature of Clare’s opinion poor Tess was glad that she had not said a word in a weak moment about her family—even though it was so unusually old almost to have gone round the circle and become a new one. Besides, another diary-girl was as good as she, it seemed, in that respect. She held her tongue about the d’Urberville vault and the Knight of the Conqueror whose name she bore. The insight afforded into Clare’s character suggested to her that it was largely owing to her supposed untraditional newness that she had won interest in his eyes.
The season developed and matured. Another year’s instalment of flowers, leaves, nightingales, thrushes, finches, and such ephemeral creatures, took up their positions where only a year ago others had stood in their place when these were nothing more than germs and inorganic particles. Rays from the sunrise drew forth the buds and stretched them into long stalks, lifted up sap in noiseless streams, opened petals, and sucked out scents in invisible jets and breathings.
Dairyman Crick’s household of maids and men lived on comfortably, placidly, even merrily. Their position was perhaps the happiest of all positions in the social scale, being above the line at which neediness ends, and below the line at which the convenances begin to cramp natural feelings, and the stress of threadbare modishness makes too little of enough.
Thus passed the leafy time when arborescence seems to be the one thing aimed at out of doors. Tess and Clare unconsciously studied each other, ever balanced on the edge of a passion, yet apparently keeping out of it. All the while they were converging, under an irresistible law, as surely as two streams in one vale.
Tess had never in her recent life been so happy as she was now, possibly never would be so happy again. She was, for one thing, physically and mentally suited among these new surroundings. The sapling which had rooted down to a poisonous stratum on the spot of its sowing had been transplanted to a deeper soil. Moreover she, and Clare also, stood as yet on the debatable land between predilection and love; where no profundities have been reached; no reflections have set in, awkwardly inquiring, “Whither does this new current tend to carry me? What does it mean to my future? How does it stand towards my past?”
Tess was the merest stray phenomenon to Angel Clare as yet—a rosy, warming apparition which had only just acquired the attribute of persistence in his consciousness. So he allowed his mind to be occupied with her, deeming his preoccupation to be no more than a philosopher’s regard of an exceedingly novel, fresh, and interesting specimen of womankind.
They met continually; they could not help it. They met daily in that strange and solemn interval, the twilight of the morning, in the violet or pink dawn; for it was necessary to rise early, so very early, here. Milking was done betimes; and before the milking came the skimming, which began at a little past three. It usually fell to the lot of some one or other of them to wake the rest, the first being aroused by an alarm-clock; and, as Tess was the latest arrival, and they soon discovered that she could be depended upon not to sleep through the alarm as others did, this task was thrust most frequently upon her. No sooner had the hour of three struck and whizzed, than she left her room and ran to the dairyman’s door; then up the ladder to Angel’s, calling him in a loud whisper; then woke her fellow-milkmaids. By the time that Tess was dressed Clare was downstairs and out in the humid air. The remaining maids and the dairyman usually gave themselves another turn on the pillow, and did not appear till a quarter of an hour later.
The gray half-tones of daybreak are not the gray half-tones of the day’s close, though the degree of their shade may be the same. In the twilight of the morning, light seems active, darkness passive; in the twilight of evening it is the darkness which is active and crescent, and the light which is the drowsy reverse.
Being so often—possibly not always by chance—the first two persons to get up at the dairy-house, they seemed to themselves the first persons up of all the world. In these early days of her residence here Tess did not skim, but went out of doors at once after rising, where he was generally awaiting her. The spectral, half-compounded, aqueous light which pervaded the open mead impressed them with a feeling of isolation, as if they were Adam and Eve. At this dim inceptive stage of the day Tess seemed to Clare to exhibit a dignified largeness both of disposition and physique, an almost regnant power, possibly because he knew that at that preternatural time hardly any woman so well endowed in person as she was likely to be walking in the open air within the boundaries of his horizon; very few in all England. Fair women are usually asleep at mid-summer dawns. She was close at hand, and the rest were nowhere.
The mixed, singular, luminous gloom in which they walked along together to the spot where the cows lay often made him think of the Resurrection hour. He little thought that the Magdalen might be at his side. Whilst all the landscape was in neutral shade his companion’s face, which was the focus of his eyes, rising above the mist stratum, seemed to have a sort of phosphorescence upon it. She looked ghostly, as if she were merely a soul at large. In reality her face, without appearing to do so, had caught the cold gleam of day from the north-east; his own face, though he did not think of it, wore the same aspect to her.
It was then, as has been said, that she impressed him most deeply. She was no longer the milkmaid, but a visionary essence of woman—a whole sex condensed into one typical form. He called her Artemis, Demeter, and other fanciful names half teasingly, which she did not like because she did not understand them.
“Call me Tess,” she would say askance; and he did.
Then it would grow lighter, and her features would become simply feminine; they had changed from those of a divinity who could confer bliss to those of a being who craved it.
At these non-human hours they could get quite close to the waterfowl. Herons came, with a great bold noise as of opening doors and shutters, out of the boughs of a plantation which they frequented at the side of the mead; or, if already on the spot, hardily maintained their standing in the water as the pair walked by, watching them by moving their heads round in a slow, horizontal, passionless wheel, like the turn of puppets by clockwork.
They could then see the faint summer fogs in layers, woolly, level, and apparently no thicker than counterpanes, spread about the meadows in detached remnants of small extent. On the gray moisture of the grass were marks where the cows had lain through the night—dark-green islands of dry herbage the size of their carcasses, in the general sea of dew. From each island proceeded a serpentine trail, by which the cow had rambled away to feed after getting up, at the end of which trail they found her; the snoring puff from her nostrils, when she recognized them, making an intenser little fog of her own amid the prevailing one. Then they drove the animals back to the barton, or sat down to milk them on the spot, as the case might require.
Or perhaps the summer fog was more general, and the meadows lay like a white sea, out of which the scattered trees rose like dangerous rocks. Birds would soar through it into the upper radiance, and hang on the wing sunning themselves, or alight on the wet rails subdividing the mead, which now shone like glass rods. Minute diamonds of moisture from the mist hung, too, upon Tess’s eyelashes, and drops upon her hair, like seed pearls. When the day grew quite strong and commonplace these dried off her; moreover, Tess then lost her strange and ethereal beauty; her teeth, lips, and eyes scintillated in the sunbeams and she was again the dazzlingly fair dairymaid only, who had to hold her own against the other women of the world.
About this time they would hear Dairyman Crick’s voice, lecturing the non-resident milkers for arriving late, and speaking sharply to old Deborah Fyander for not washing her hands.
“For Heaven’s sake, pop thy hands under the pump, Deb! Upon my soul, if the London folk only knowed of thee and thy slovenly ways, they’d swaller their milk and butter more mincing than they do a’ready; and that’s saying a good deal.”
The milking progressed, till towards the end Tess and Clare, in common with the rest, could hear the heavy breakfast table dragged out from the wall in the kitchen by Mrs Crick, this being the invariable preliminary to each meal; the same horrible scrape accompanying its return journey when the table had been cleared.
There was a great stir in the milk-house just after breakfast. The churn revolved as usual, but the butter would not come. Whenever this happened the dairy was paralyzed. Squish, squash echoed the milk in the great cylinder, but never arose the sound they waited for.
Dairyman Crick and his wife, the milkmaids Tess, Marian, Retty Priddle, Izz Huett, and the married ones from the cottages; also Mr Clare, Jonathan Kail, old Deborah, and the rest, stood gazing hopelessly at the churn; and the boy who kept the horse going outside put on moon-like eyes to show his sense of the situation. Even the melancholy horse himself seemed to look in at the window in inquiring despair at each walk round.
“’Tis years since I went to Conjuror Trendle’s son in Egdon—years!” said the dairyman bitterly. “And he was nothing to what his father had been. I have said fifty times, if I have said once, that I don’t believe in en; though ’a do cast folks’ waters very true. But I shall have to go to ’n if he’s alive. O yes, I shall have to go to ’n, if this sort of thing continnys!”
Even Mr Clare began to feel tragical at the dairyman’s desperation.
“Conjuror Fall, t’other side of Casterbridge, that they used to call ‘Wide-O’, was a very good man when I was a boy,” said Jonathan Kail. “But he’s rotten as touchwood by now.”
“My grandfather used to go to Conjuror Mynterne, out at Owlscombe, and a clever man a’ were, so I’ve heard grandf’er say,” continued Mr Crick. “But there’s no such genuine folk about nowadays!”
Mrs Crick’s mind kept nearer to the matter in hand.
“Perhaps somebody in the house is in love,” she said tentatively. “I’ve heard tell in my younger days that that will cause it. Why, Crick—that maid we had years ago, do ye mind, and how the butter didn’t come then—”
“Ah yes, yes!—but that isn’t the rights o’t. It had nothing to do with the love-making. I can mind all about it—’twas the damage to the churn.”
He turned to Clare.
“Jack Dollop, a ’hore’s-bird of a fellow we had here as milker at one time, sir, courted a young woman over at Mellstock, and deceived her as he had deceived many afore. But he had another sort o’ woman to reckon wi’ this time, and it was not the girl herself. One Holy Thursday of all days in the almanack, we was here as we mid be now, only there was no churning in hand, when we zid the girl’s mother coming up to the door, wi’ a great brass-mounted umbrella in her hand that would ha’ felled an ox, and saying ‘Do Jack Dollop work here?—because I want him! I have a big bone to pick with he, I can assure ’n!’ And some way behind her mother walked Jack’s young woman, crying bitterly into her handkercher. ‘O Lard, here’s a time!’ said Jack, looking out o’ winder at ’em. ‘She’ll murder me! Where shall I get—where shall I—? Don’t tell her where I be!’ And with that he scrambled into the churn through the trap-door, and shut himself inside, just as the young woman’s mother busted into the milk-house. ‘The villain—where is he?’ says she. ‘I’ll claw his face for’n, let me only catch him!’ Well, she hunted about everywhere, ballyragging Jack by side and by seam, Jack lying a’most stifled inside the churn, and the poor maid—or young woman rather—standing at the door crying her eyes out. I shall never forget it, never! ’Twould have melted a marble stone! But she couldn’t find him nowhere at all.”
The dairyman paused, and one or two words of comment came from the listeners.
Dairyman Crick’s stories often seemed to be ended when they were not really so, and strangers were betrayed into premature interjections of finality; though old friends knew better. The narrator went on—
“Well, how the old woman should have had the wit to guess it I could never tell, but she found out that he was inside that there churn. Without saying a word she took hold of the winch (it was turned by handpower then), and round she swung him, and Jack began to flop about inside. ‘O Lard! stop the churn! let me out!’ says he, popping out his head. ‘I shall be churned into a pummy!’ (He was a cowardly chap in his heart, as such men mostly be). ‘Not till ye make amends for ravaging her virgin innocence!’ says the old woman. ‘Stop the churn you old witch!’ screams he. ‘You call me old witch, do ye, you deceiver!’ says she, ‘when ye ought to ha’ been calling me mother-law these last five months!’ And on went the churn, and Jack’s bones rattled round again. Well, none of us ventured to interfere; and at last ’a promised to make it right wi’ her. ‘Yes—I’ll be as good as my word!’ he said. And so it ended that day.”
While the listeners were smiling their comments there was a quick movement behind their backs, and they looked round. Tess, pale-faced, had gone to the door.
“How warm ’tis to-day!” she said, almost inaudibly.
It was warm, and none of them connected her withdrawal with the reminiscences of the dairyman. He went forward and opened the door for her, saying with tender raillery—
“Why, maidy” (he frequently, with unconscious irony, gave her this pet name), “the prettiest milker I’ve got in my dairy; you mustn’t get so fagged as this at the first breath of summer weather, or we shall be finely put to for want of ’ee by dog-days, shan’t we, Mr Clare?”
“I was faint—and—I think I am better out o’ doors,” she said mechanically; and disappeared outside.
Fortunately for her the milk in the revolving churn at that moment changed its squashing for a decided flick-flack.
“’Tis coming!” cried Mrs Crick, and the attention of all was called off from Tess.
That fair sufferer soon recovered herself externally; but she remained much depressed all the afternoon. When the evening milking was done she did not care to be with the rest of them, and went out of doors, wandering along she knew not whither. She was wretched—O so wretched—at the perception that to her companions the dairyman’s story had been rather a humorous narration than otherwise; none of them but herself seemed to see the sorrow of it; to a certainty, not one knew how cruelly it touched the tender place in her experience. The evening sun was now ugly to her, like a great inflamed wound in the sky. Only a solitary cracked-voice reed-sparrow greeted her from the bushes by the river, in a sad, machine-made tone, resembling that of a past friend whose friendship she had outworn.
In these long June days the milkmaids, and, indeed, most of the household, went to bed at sunset or sooner, the morning work before milking being so early and heavy at a time of full pails. Tess usually accompanied her fellows upstairs. To-night, however, she was the first to go to their common chamber; and she had dozed when the other girls came in. She saw them undressing in the orange light of the vanished sun, which flushed their forms with its colour; she dozed again, but she was reawakened by their voices, and quietly turned her eyes towards them.
Neither of her three chamber-companions had got into bed. They were standing in a group, in their nightgowns, barefooted, at the window, the last red rays of the west still warming their faces and necks and the walls around them. All were watching somebody in the garden with deep interest, their three faces close together: a jovial and round one, a pale one with dark hair, and a fair one whose tresses were auburn.
“Don’t push! You can see as well as I,” said Retty, the auburn-haired and youngest girl, without removing her eyes from the window.
“’Tis no use for you to be in love with him any more than me, Retty Priddle,” said jolly-faced Marian, the eldest, slily. “His thoughts be of other cheeks than thine!”
Retty Priddle still looked, and the others looked again.
“There he is again!” cried Izz Huett, the pale girl with dark damp hair and keenly cut lips.
“You needn’t say anything, Izz,” answered Retty. “For I zid you kissing his shade.”
”What did you see her doing?” asked Marian.
“Why—he was standing over the whey-tub to let off the whey, and the shade of his face came upon the wall behind, close to Izz, who was standing there filling a vat. She put her mouth against the wall and kissed the shade of his mouth; I zid her, though he didn’t.”
“O Izz Huett!” said Marian.
A rosy spot came into the middle of Izz Huett’s cheek.
“Well, there was no harm in it,” she declared, with attempted coolness. “And if I be in love wi’en, so is Retty, too; and so be you, Marian, come to that.”
Marian’s full face could not blush past its chronic pinkness.
“I!” she said. “What a tale! Ah, there he is again! Dear eyes—dear face—dear Mr Clare!”
“There—you’ve owned it!”
“So have you—so have we all,” said Marian, with the dry frankness of complete indifference to opinion. “It is silly to pretend otherwise amongst ourselves, though we need not own it to other folks. I would just marry ’n to-morrow!”
“So would I—and more,” murmured Izz Huett.
“And I too,” whispered the more timid Retty.
The listener grew warm.
“We can’t all marry him,” said Izz.
“We shan’t, either of us; which is worse still,” said the eldest. “There he is again!”
They all three blew him a silent kiss.
“Why?” asked Retty quickly.
“Because he likes Tess Durbeyfield best,” said Marian, lowering her voice. “I have watched him every day, and have found it out.”
There was a reflective silence.
“But she don’t care anything for ’n?” at length breathed Retty.
“Well—I sometimes think that too.”
“But how silly all this is!” said Izz Huett impatiently. “Of course he won’t marry any one of us, or Tess either—a gentleman’s son, who’s going to be a great landowner and farmer abroad! More likely to ask us to come wi’en as farm-hands at so much a year!”
One sighed, and another sighed, and Marian’s plump figure sighed biggest of all. Somebody in bed hard by sighed too. Tears came into the eyes of Retty Priddle, the pretty red-haired youngest—the last bud of the Paridelles, so important in the county annals. They watched silently a little longer, their three faces still close together as before, and the triple hues of their hair mingling. But the unconscious Mr Clare had gone indoors, and they saw him no more; and, the shades beginning to deepen, they crept into their beds. In a few minutes they heard him ascend the ladder to his own room. Marian was soon snoring, but Izz did not drop into forgetfulness for a long time. Retty Priddle cried herself to sleep.
The deeper-passioned Tess was very far from sleeping even then. This conversation was another of the bitter pills she had been obliged to swallow that day. Scarce the least feeling of jealousy arose in her breast. For that matter she knew herself to have the preference. Being more finely formed, better educated, and, though the youngest except Retty, more woman than either, she perceived that only the slightest ordinary care was necessary for holding her own in Angel Clare’s heart against these her candid friends. But the grave question was, ought she to do this? There was, to be sure, hardly a ghost of a chance for either of them, in a serious sense; but there was, or had been, a chance of one or the other inspiring him with a passing fancy for her, and enjoying the pleasure of his attentions while he stayed here. Such unequal attachments had led to marriage; and she had heard from Mrs Crick that Mr Clare had one day asked, in a laughing way, what would be the use of his marrying a fine lady, and all the while ten thousand acres of Colonial pasture to feed, and cattle to rear, and corn to reap. A farm-woman would be the only sensible kind of wife for him. But whether Mr Clare had spoken seriously or not, why should she, who could never conscientiously allow any man to marry her now, and who had religiously determined that she never would be tempted to do so, draw off Mr Clare’s attention from other women, for the brief happiness of sunning herself in his eyes while he remained at Talbothays?
They came downstairs yawning next morning; but skimming and milking were proceeded with as usual, and they went indoors to breakfast. Dairyman Crick was discovered stamping about the house. He had received a letter, in which a customer had complained that the butter had a twang.
“And begad, so ’t have!” said the dairyman, who held in his left hand a wooden slice on which a lump of butter was stuck. “Yes—taste for yourself!”
Several of them gathered round him; and Mr Clare tasted, Tess tasted, also the other indoor milkmaids, one or two of the milking-men, and last of all Mrs Crick, who came out from the waiting breakfast-table. There certainly was a twang.
The dairyman, who had thrown himself into abstraction to better realize the taste, and so divine the particular species of noxious weed to which it appertained, suddenly exclaimed—
“’Tis garlic! and I thought there wasn’t a blade left in that mead!”
Then all the old hands remembered that a certain dry mead, into which a few of the cows had been admitted of late, had, in years gone by, spoilt the butter in the same way. The dairyman had not recognized the taste at that time, and thought the butter bewitched.
“We must overhaul that mead,” he resumed; “this mustn’t continny!”
All having armed themselves with old pointed knives, they went out together. As the inimical plant could only be present in very microscopic dimensions to have escaped ordinary observation, to find it seemed rather a hopeless attempt in the stretch of rich grass before them. However, they formed themselves into line, all assisting, owing to the importance of the search; the dairyman at the upper end with Mr Clare, who had volunteered to help; then Tess, Marian, Izz Huett, and Retty; then Bill Lewell, Jonathan, and the married dairywomen—Beck Knibbs, with her wooly black hair and rolling eyes; and flaxen Frances, consumptive from the winter damps of the water-meads—who lived in their respective cottages.
With eyes fixed upon the ground they crept slowly across a strip of the field, returning a little further down in such a manner that, when they should have finished, not a single inch of the pasture but would have fallen under the eye of some one of them. It was a most tedious business, not more than half a dozen shoots of garlic being discoverable in the whole field; yet such was the herb’s pungency that probably one bite of it by one cow had been sufficient to season the whole dairy’s produce for the day.
Differing one from another in natures and moods so greatly as they did, they yet formed, bending, a curiously uniform row—automatic, noiseless; and an alien observer passing down the neighbouring lane might well have been excused for massing them as “Hodge”. As they crept along, stooping low to discern the plant, a soft yellow gleam was reflected from the buttercups into their shaded faces, giving them an elfish, moonlit aspect, though the sun was pouring upon their backs in all the strength of noon.
Angel Clare, who communistically stuck to his rule of taking part with the rest in everything, glanced up now and then. It was not, of course, by accident that he walked next to Tess.
“Well, how are you?” he murmured.
“Very well, thank you, sir,” she replied demurely.
As they had been discussing a score of personal matters only half-an-hour before, the introductory style seemed a little superfluous. But they got no further in speech just then. They crept and crept, the hem of her petticoat just touching his gaiter, and his elbow sometimes brushing hers. At last the dairyman, who came next, could stand it no longer.
“Upon my soul and body, this here stooping do fairly make my back open and shut!” he exclaimed, straightening himself slowly with an excruciated look till quite upright. “And you, maidy Tess, you wasn’t well a day or two ago—this will make your head ache finely! Don’t do any more, if you feel fainty; leave the rest to finish it.”
Dairyman Crick withdrew, and Tess dropped behind. Mr Clare also stepped out of line, and began privateering about for the weed. When she found him near her, her very tension at what she had heard the night before made her the first to speak.
“Don’t they look pretty?” she said.
“Izzy Huett and Retty.”
Tess had moodily decided that either of these maidens would make a good farmer’s wife, and that she ought to recommend them, and obscure her own wretched charms.
“Pretty? Well, yes—they are pretty girls—fresh looking. I have often thought so.”
“Though, poor dears, prettiness won’t last long!”
“O no, unfortunately.”
“They are excellent dairywomen.”
“Yes: though not better than you.”
“They skim better than I.”
Clare remained observing them—not without their observing him.
“She is colouring up,” continued Tess heroically.
“Oh! Why it that?”
“Because you are looking at her.”
Self-sacrificing as her mood might be, Tess could not well go further and cry, “Marry one of them, if you really do want a dairywoman and not a lady; and don’t think of marrying me!” She followed Dairyman Crick, and had the mournful satisfaction of seeing that Clare remained behind.
From this day she forced herself to take pains to avoid him—never allowing herself, as formerly, to remain long in his company, even if their juxtaposition were purely accidental. She gave the other three every chance.
Tess was woman enough to realize from their avowals to herself that Angel Clare had the honour of all the dairymaids in his keeping, and her perception of his care to avoid compromising the happiness of either in the least degree bred a tender respect in Tess for what she deemed, rightly or wrongly, the self-controlling sense of duty shown by him, a quality which she had never expected to find in one of the opposite sex, and in the absence of which more than one of the simple hearts who were his house-mates might have gone weeping on her pilgrimage.
The hot weather of July had crept upon them unawares, and the atmosphere of the flat vale hung heavy as an opiate over the dairy-folk, the cows, and the trees. Hot steaming rains fell frequently, making the grass where the cows fed yet more rank, and hindering the late hay-making in the other meads.
It was Sunday morning; the milking was done; the outdoor milkers had gone home. Tess and the other three were dressing themselves rapidly, the whole bevy having agreed to go together to Mellstock Church, which lay some three or four miles distant from the dairy-house. She had now been two months at Talbothays, and this was her first excursion.
All the preceding afternoon and night heavy thunderstorms had hissed down upon the meads, and washed some of the hay into the river; but this morning the sun shone out all the more brilliantly for the deluge, and the air was balmy and clear.
The crooked lane leading from their own parish to Mellstock ran along the lowest levels in a portion of its length, and when the girls reached the most depressed spot they found that the result of the rain had been to flood the lane over-shoe to a distance of some fifty yards. This would have been no serious hindrance on a week-day; they would have clicked through it in their high pattens and boots quite unconcerned; but on this day of vanity, this Sun’s-day, when flesh went forth to coquet with flesh while hypocritically affecting business with spiritual things; on this occasion for wearing their white stockings and thin shoes, and their pink, white, and lilac gowns, on which every mud spot would be visible, the pool was an awkward impediment. They could hear the church-bell calling—as yet nearly a mile off.
“Who would have expected such a rise in the river in summer-time!” said Marian, from the top of the roadside bank on which they had climbed, and were maintaining a precarious footing in the hope of creeping along its slope till they were past the pool.
“We can’t get there anyhow, without walking right through it, or else going round the Turnpike way; and that would make us so very late!” said Retty, pausing hopelessly.
“And I do colour up so hot, walking into church late, and all the people staring round,” said Marian, “that I hardly cool down again till we get into the That-it-may-please-Thees.”
While they stood clinging to the bank they heard a splashing round the bend of the road, and presently appeared Angel Clare, advancing along the lane towards them through the water.
Four hearts gave a big throb simultaneously.
His aspect was probably as un-Sabbatarian a one as a dogmatic parson’s son often presented; his attire being his dairy clothes, long wading boots, a cabbage-leaf inside his hat to keep his head cool, with a thistle-spud to finish him off. “He’s not going to church,” said Marian.
“No—I wish he was!” murmured Tess.
Angel, in fact, rightly or wrongly (to adopt the safe phrase of evasive controversialists), preferred sermons in stones to sermons in churches and chapels on fine summer days. This morning, moreover, he had gone out to see if the damage to the hay by the flood was considerable or not. On his walk he observed the girls from a long distance, though they had been so occupied with their difficulties of passage as not to notice him. He knew that the water had risen at that spot, and that it would quite check their progress. So he had hastened on, with a dim idea of how he could help them—one of them in particular.
The rosy-cheeked, bright-eyed quartet looked so charming in their light summer attire, clinging to the roadside bank like pigeons on a roof-slope, that he stopped a moment to regard them before coming close. Their gauzy skirts had brushed up from the grass innumerable flies and butterflies which, unable to escape, remained caged in the transparent tissue as in an aviary. Angel’s eye at last fell upon Tess, the hindmost of the four; she, being full of suppressed laughter at their dilemma, could not help meeting his glance radiantly.
He came beneath them in the water, which did not rise over his long boots; and stood looking at the entrapped flies and butterflies.
“Are you trying to get to church?” he said to Marian, who was in front, including the next two in his remark, but avoiding Tess.
“Yes, sir; and ’tis getting late; and my colour do come up so—”
“I’ll carry you through the pool—every Jill of you.”
The whole four flushed as if one heart beat through them.
“I think you can’t, sir,” said Marian.
“It is the only way for you to get past. Stand still. Nonsense—you are not too heavy! I’d carry you all four together. Now, Marian, attend,” he continued, “and put your arms round my shoulders, so. Now! Hold on. That’s well done.”
Marian had lowered herself upon his arm and shoulder as directed, and Angel strode off with her, his slim figure, as viewed from behind, looking like the mere stem to the great nosegay suggested by hers. They disappeared round the curve of the road, and only his sousing footsteps and the top ribbon of Marian’s bonnet told where they were. In a few minutes he reappeared. Izz Huett was the next in order upon the bank.
“Here he comes,” she murmured, and they could hear that her lips were dry with emotion. “And I have to put my arms round his neck and look into his face as Marian did.”
“There’s nothing in that,” said Tess quickly.
“There’s a time for everything,” continued Izz, unheeding. “A time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; the first is now going to be mine.”
“Fie—it is Scripture, Izz!”
“Yes,” said Izz, “I’ve always a’ ear at church for pretty verses.”
Angel Clare, to whom three-quarters of this performance was a commonplace act of kindness, now approached Izz. She quietly and dreamily lowered herself into his arms, and Angel methodically marched off with her. When he was heard returning for the third time Retty’s throbbing heart could be almost seen to shake her. He went up to the red-haired girl, and while he was seizing her he glanced at Tess. His lips could not have pronounced more plainly, “It will soon be you and I.” Her comprehension appeared in her face; she could not help it. There was an understanding between them.
Poor little Retty, though by far the lightest weight, was the most troublesome of Clare’s burdens. Marian had been like a sack of meal, a dead weight of plumpness under which he has literally staggered. Izz had ridden sensibly and calmly. Retty was a bunch of hysterics.
However, he got through with the disquieted creature, deposited her, and returned. Tess could see over the hedge the distant three in a group, standing as he had placed them on the next rising ground. It was now her turn. She was embarrassed to discover that excitement at the proximity of Mr Clare’s breath and eyes, which she had contemned in her companions, was intensified in herself; and as if fearful of betraying her secret, she paltered with him at the last moment.
“I may be able to clim’ along the bank perhaps—I can clim’ better than they. You must be so tired, Mr Clare!”
“No, no, Tess,” said he quickly. And almost before she was aware, she was seated in his arms and resting against his shoulder.
“Three Leahs to get one Rachel,” he whispered.
“They are better women than I,” she replied, magnanimously sticking to her resolve.
“Not to me,” said Angel.
He saw her grow warm at this; and they went some steps in silence.
“I hope I am not too heavy?” she said timidly.
“O no. You should lift Marian! Such a lump. You are like an undulating billow warmed by the sun. And all this fluff of muslin about you is the froth.”
“It is very pretty—if I seem like that to you.”
“Do you know that I have undergone three-quarters of this labour entirely for the sake of the fourth quarter?”
“I did not expect such an event to-day.”
“Nor I… The water came up so sudden.”
That the rise in the water was what she understood him to refer to, the state of breathing belied. Clare stood still and inclinced his face towards hers.
“O Tessy!” he exclaimed.
The girl’s cheeks burned to the breeze, and she could not look into his eyes for her emotion. It reminded Angel that he was somewhat unfairly taking advantage of an accidental position; and he went no further with it. No definite words of love had crossed their lips as yet, and suspension at this point was desirable now. However, he walked slowly, to make the remainder of the distance as long as possible; but at last they came to the bend, and the rest of their progress was in full view of the other three. The dry land was reached, and he set her down.
Her friends were looking with round thoughtful eyes at her and him, and she could see that they had been talking of her. He hastily bade them farewell, and splashed back along the stretch of submerged road.
The four moved on together as before, till Marian broke the silence by saying—
“No—in all truth; we have no chance against her!” She looked joylessly at Tess.
“What do you mean?” asked the latter.
“He likes ’ee best—the very best! We could see it as he brought ’ee. He would have kissed ’ee, if you had encouraged him to do it, ever so little.”
“No, no,” said she.
The gaiety with which they had set out had somehow vanished; and yet there was no enmity or malice between them. They were generous young souls; they had been reared in the lonely country nooks where fatalism is a strong sentiment, and they did not blame her. Such supplanting was to be.
Tess’s heart ached. There was no concealing from herself the fact that she loved Angel Clare, perhaps all the more passionately from knowing that the others had also lost their hearts to him. There is contagion in this sentiment, especially among women. And yet that same hungry nature had fought against this, but too feebly, and the natural result had followed.
“I will never stand in your way, nor in the way of either of you!” she declared to Retty that night in the bedroom (her tears running down). “I can’t help this, my dear! I don’t think marrying is in his mind at all; but if he were ever to ask me I should refuse him, as I should refuse any man.”
“Oh! would you? Why?” said wondering Retty.
“It cannot be! But I will be plain. Putting myself quite on one side, I don’t think he will choose either of you.”
“I have never expected it—thought of it!” moaned Retty. “But O! I wish I was dead!”
The poor child, torn by a feeling which she hardly understood, turned to the other two girls who came upstairs just then.
“We be friends with her again,” she said to them. “She thinks no more of his choosing her than we do.”
So the reserve went off, and they were confiding and warm.
“I don’t seem to care what I do now,” said Marian, whose mood was turned to its lowest bass. “I was going to marry a dairyman at Stickleford, who’s asked me twice; but—my soul—I would put an end to myself rather’n be his wife now! Why don’t ye speak, Izz?”
“To confess, then,” murmured Izz, “I made sure to-day that he was going to kiss me as he held me; and I lay still against his breast, hoping and hoping, and never moved at all. But he did not. I don’t like biding here at Talbothays any longer! I shall go hwome.”
The air of the sleeping-chamber seemed to palpitate with the hopeless passion of the girls. They writhed feverishly under the oppressiveness of an emotion thrust on them by cruel Nature’s law—an emotion which they had neither expected nor desired. The incident of the day had fanned the flame that was burning the inside of their hearts out, and the torture was almost more than they could endure. The differences which distinguished them as individuals were abstracted by this passion, and each was but portion of one organism called sex. There was so much frankness and so little jealousy because there was no hope. Each one was a girl of fair common sense, and she did not delude herself with any vain conceits, or deny her love, or give herself airs, in the idea of outshining the others. The full recognition of the futility of their infatuation, from a social point of view; its purposeless beginning; its self-bounded outlook; its lack of everything to justify its existence in the eye of civilization (while lacking nothing in the eye of Nature); the one fact that it did exist, ecstasizing them to a killing joy—all this imparted to them a resignation, a dignity, which a practical and sordid expectation of winning him as a husband would have destroyed.
They tossed and turned on their little beds, and the cheese-wring dripped monotonously downstairs.
“B’ you awake, Tess?” whispered one, half-an-hour later.
It was Izz Huett’s voice.
Tess replied in the affirmative, whereupon also Retty and Marian suddenly flung the bedclothes off them, and sighed—
“So be we!”
“I wonder what she is like—the lady they say his family have looked out for him!”
“I wonder,” said Izz.
“Some lady looked out for him?” gasped Tess, starting. “I have never heard o’ that!”
“O yes—’tis whispered; a young lady of his own rank, chosen by his family; a Doctor of Divinity’s daughter near his father’s parish of Emminster; he don’t much care for her, they say. But he is sure to marry her.”
They had heard so very little of this; yet it was enough to build up wretched dolorous dreams upon, there in the shade of the night. They pictured all the details of his being won round to consent, of the wedding preparations, of the bride’s happiness, of her dress and veil, of her blissful home with him, when oblivion would have fallen upon themselves as far as he and their love were concerned. Thus they talked, and ached, and wept till sleep charmed their sorrow away.
After this disclosure Tess nourished no further foolish thought that there lurked any grave and deliberate import in Clare’s attentions to her. It was a passing summer love of her face, for love’s own temporary sake—nothing more. And the thorny crown of this sad conception was that she whom he really did prefer in a cursory way to the rest, she who knew herself to be more impassioned in nature, cleverer, more beautiful than they, was in the eyes of propriety far less worthy of him than the homelier ones whom he ignored.
Amid the oozing fatness and warm ferments of the Froom Vale, at a season when the rush of juices could almost be heard below the hiss of fertilization, it was impossible that the most fanciful love should not grow passionate. The ready bosoms existing there were impregnated by their surroundings.
July passed over their heads, and the Thermidorean weather which came in its wake seemed an effort on the part of Nature to match the state of hearts at Talbothays Dairy. The air of the place, so fresh in the spring and early summer, was stagnant and enervating now. Its heavy scents weighed upon them, and at mid-day the landscape seemed lying in a swoon. Ethiopic scorchings browned the upper slopes of the pastures, but there was still bright green herbage here where the watercourses purled. And as Clare was oppressed by the outward heats, so was he burdened inwardly by waxing fervour of passion for the soft and silent Tess.
The rains having passed, the uplands were dry. The wheels of the dairyman’s spring-cart, as he sped home from market, licked up the pulverized surface of the highway, and were followed by white ribands of dust, as if they had set a thin powder-train on fire. The cows jumped wildly over the five-barred barton-gate, maddened by the gad-fly; Dairyman Crick kept his shirt-sleeves permanently rolled up from Monday to Saturday; open windows had no effect in ventilation without open doors, and in the dairy-garden the blackbirds and thrushes crept about under the currant-bushes, rather in the manner of quadrupeds than of winged creatures. The flies in the kitchen were lazy, teasing, and familiar, crawling about in the unwonted places, on the floors, into drawers, and over the backs of the milkmaids’ hands. Conversations were concerning sunstroke; while butter-making, and still more butter-keeping, was a despair.
They milked entirely in the meads for coolness and convenience, without driving in the cows. During the day the animals obsequiously followed the shadow of the smallest tree as it moved round the stem with the diurnal roll; and when the milkers came they could hardly stand still for the flies.
On one of these afternoons four or five unmilked cows chanced to stand apart from the general herd, behind the corner of a hedge, among them being Dumpling and Old Pretty, who loved Tess’s hands above those of any other maid. When she rose from her stool under a finished cow, Angel Clare, who had been observing her for some time, asked her if she would take the aforesaid creatures next. She silently assented, and with her stool at arm’s length, and the pail against her knee, went round to where they stood. Soon the sound of Old Pretty’s milk fizzing into the pail came through the hedge, and then Angel felt inclined to go round the corner also, to finish off a hard-yielding milcher who had strayed there, he being now as capable of this as the dairyman himself.
All the men, and some of the women, when milking, dug their foreheads into the cows and gazed into the pail. But a few—mainly the younger ones—rested their heads sideways. This was Tess Durbeyfield’s habit, her temple pressing the milcher’s flank, her eyes fixed on the far end of the meadow with the quiet of one lost in meditation. She was milking Old Pretty thus, and the sun chancing to be on the milking-side, it shone flat upon her pink-gowned form and her white curtain-bonnet, and upon her profile, rendering it keen as a cameo cut from the dun background of the cow.
She did not know that Clare had followed her round, and that he sat under his cow watching her. The stillness of her head and features was remarkable: she might have been in a trance, her eyes open, yet unseeing. Nothing in the picture moved but Old Pretty’s tail and Tess’s pink hands, the latter so gently as to be a rhythmic pulsation only, as if they were obeying a reflex stimulus, like a beating heart.
How very lovable her face was to him. Yet there was nothing ethereal about it; all was real vitality, real warmth, real incarnation. And it was in her mouth that this culminated. Eyes almost as deep and speaking he had seen before, and cheeks perhaps as fair; brows as arched, a chin and throat almost as shapely; her mouth he had seen nothing to equal on the face of the earth. To a young man with the least fire in him that little upward lift in the middle of her red top lip was distracting, infatuating, maddening. He had never before seen a woman’s lips and teeth which forced upon his mind with such persistent iteration the old Elizabethan simile of roses filled with snow. Perfect, he, as a lover, might have called them off-hand. But no—they were not perfect. And it was the touch of the imperfect upon the would-be perfect that gave the sweetness, because it was that which gave the humanity.
Clare had studied the curves of those lips so many times that he could reproduce them mentally with ease: and now, as they again confronted him, clothed with colour and life, they sent an aura over his flesh, a breeze through his nerves, which well nigh produced a qualm; and actually produced, by some mysterious physiological process, a prosaic sneeze.
She then became conscious that he was observing her; but she would not show it by any change of position, though the curious dream-like fixity disappeared, and a close eye might easily have discerned that the rosiness of her face deepened, and then faded till only a tinge of it was left.
The influence that had passed into Clare like an excitation from the sky did not die down. Resolutions, reticences, prudences, fears, fell back like a defeated battalion. He jumped up from his seat, and, leaving his pail to be kicked over if the milcher had such a mind, went quickly towards the desire of his eyes, and, kneeling down beside her, clasped her in his arms.
Tess was taken completely by surprise, and she yielded to his embrace with unreflecting inevitableness. Having seen that it was really her lover who had advanced, and no one else, her lips parted, and she sank upon him in her momentary joy, with something very like an ecstatic cry.
He had been on the point of kissing that too tempting mouth, but he checked himself, for tender conscience’ sake.
“Forgive me, Tess dear!” he whispered. “I ought to have asked. I—did not know what I was doing. I do not mean it as a liberty. I am devoted to you, Tessy, dearest, in all sincerity!”
Old Pretty by this time had looked round, puzzled; and seeing two people crouching under her where, by immemorial custom, there should have been only one, lifted her hind leg crossly.
“She is angry—she doesn’t know what we mean—she’ll kick over the milk!” exclaimed Tess, gently striving to free herself, her eyes concerned with the quadruped’s actions, her heart more deeply concerned with herself and Clare.
She slipped up from her seat, and they stood together, his arm still encircling her. Tess’s eyes, fixed on distance, began to fill.
“Why do you cry, my darling?” he said.
“O—I don’t know!” she murmured.
As she saw and felt more clearly the position she was in she became agitated and tried to withdraw.
“Well, I have betrayed my feeling, Tess, at last,” said he, with a curious sigh of desperation, signifying unconsciously that his heart had outrun his judgement. “That I—love you dearly and truly I need not say. But I—it shall go no further now—it distresses you—I am as surprised as you are. You will not think I have presumed upon your defencelessness—been too quick and unreflecting, will you?”
“N’—I can’t tell.”
He had allowed her to free herself; and in a minute or two the milking of each was resumed. Nobody had beheld the gravitation of the two into one; and when the dairyman came round by that screened nook a few minutes later, there was not a sign to reveal that the markedly sundered pair were more to each other than mere acquaintance. Yet in the interval since Crick’s last view of them something had occurred which changed the pivot of the universe for their two natures; something which, had he known its quality, the dairyman would have despised, as a practical man; yet which was based upon a more stubborn and resistless tendency than a whole heap of so-called practicalities. A veil had been whisked aside; the tract of each one’s outlook was to have a new horizon thenceforward—for a short time or for a long.