Tess wrote a most touching and urgent letter to her mother the very next day, and by the end of the week a response to her communication arrived in Joan Durbeyfield’s wandering last-century hand.
J write these few lines Hoping they will find you well, as they leave me at Present, thank God for it. Dear Tess, we are all glad to Hear that you are going really to be married soon. But with respect to your question, Tess, J say between ourselves, quite private but very strong, that on no account do you say a word of your Bygone Trouble to him. J did not tell everything to your Father, he being so Proud on account of his Respectability, which, perhaps, your Intended is the same. Many a woman—some of the Highest in the Land—have had a Trouble in their time; and why should you Trumpet yours when others don’t Trumpet theirs? No girl would be such a Fool, specially as it is so long ago, and not your Fault at all. J shall answer the same if you ask me fifty times. Besides, you must bear in mind that, knowing it to be your Childish Nature to tell all that’s in your heart—so simple!—J made you promise me never to let it out by Word or Deed, having your Welfare in my Mind; and you most solemnly did promise it going from this Door. J have not named either that Question or your coming marriage to your Father, as he would blab it everywhere, poor Simple Man.
Dear Tess, keep up your Spirits, and we mean to send you a Hogshead of Cyder for you Wedding, knowing there is not much in your parts, and thin Sour Stuff what there is. So no more at present, and with kind love to your Young Man.—From your affectte. Mother,
“O mother, mother!” murmured Tess.
She was recognizing how light was the touch of events the most oppressive upon Mrs Durbeyfield’s elastic spirit. Her mother did not see life as Tess saw it. That haunting episode of bygone days was to her mother but a passing accident. But perhaps her mother was right as to the course to be followed, whatever she might be in her reasons. Silence seemed, on the face of it, best for her adored one’s happiness: silence it should be.
Thus steadied by a command from the only person in the world who had any shadow of right to control her action, Tess grew calmer. The responsibility was shifted, and her heart was lighter than it had been for weeks. The days of declining autumn which followed her assent, beginning with the month of October, formed a season through which she lived in spiritual altitudes more nearly approaching ecstasy than any other period of her life.
There was hardly a touch of earth in her love for Clare. To her sublime trustfulness he was all that goodness could be—knew all that a guide, philosopher, and friend should know. She thought every line in the contour of his person the perfection of masculine beauty, his soul the soul of a saint, his intellect that of a seer. The wisdom of her love for him, as love, sustained her dignity; she seemed to be wearing a crown. The compassion of his love for her, as she saw it, made her lift up her heart to him in devotion. He would sometimes catch her large, worshipful eyes, that had no bottom to them looking at him from their depths, as if she saw something immortal before her.
She dismissed the past—trod upon it and put it out, as one treads on a coal that is smouldering and dangerous.
She had not known that men could be so disinterested, chivalrous, protective, in their love for women as he. Angel Clare was far from all that she thought him in this respect; absurdly far, indeed; but he was, in truth, more spiritual than animal; he had himself well in hand, and was singularly free from grossness. Though not cold-natured, he was rather bright than hot—less Byronic than Shelleyan; could love desperately, but with a love more especially inclined to the imaginative and ethereal; it was a fastidious emotion which could jealously guard the loved one against his very self. This amazed and enraptured Tess, whose slight experiences had been so infelicitous till now; and in her reaction from indignation against the male sex she swerved to excess of honour for Clare.
They unaffectedly sought each other’s company; in her honest faith she did not disguise her desire to be with him. The sum of her instincts on this matter, if clearly stated, would have been that the elusive quality of her sex which attracts men in general might be distasteful to so perfect a man after an avowal of love, since it must in its very nature carry with it a suspicion of art.
The country custom of unreserved comradeship out of doors during betrothal was the only custom she knew, and to her it had no strangeness; though it seemed oddly anticipative to Clare till he saw how normal a thing she, in common with all the other dairy-folk, regarded it. Thus, during this October month of wonderful afternoons they roved along the meads by creeping paths which followed the brinks of trickling tributary brooks, hopping across by little wooden bridges to the other side, and back again. They were never out of the sound of some purling weir, whose buzz accompanied their own murmuring, while the beams of the sun, almost as horizontal as the mead itself, formed a pollen of radiance over the landscape. They saw tiny blue fogs in the shadows of trees and hedges, all the time that there was bright sunshine elsewhere. The sun was so near the ground, and the sward so flat, that the shadows of Clare and Tess would stretch a quarter of a mile ahead of them, like two long fingers pointing afar to where the green alluvial reaches abutted against the sloping sides of the vale.
Men were at work here and there—for it was the season for “taking up” the meadows, or digging the little waterways clear for the winter irrigation, and mending their banks where trodden down by the cows. The shovelfuls of loam, black as jet, brought there by the river when it was as wide as the whole valley, were an essence of soils, pounded champaigns of the past, steeped, refined, and subtilized to extraordinary richness, out of which came all the fertility of the mead, and of the cattle grazing there.
Clare hardily kept his arm round her waist in sight of these watermen, with the air of a man who was accustomed to public dalliance, though actually as shy as she who, with lips parted and eyes askance on the labourers, wore the look of a wary animal the while.
“You are not ashamed of owning me as yours before them!” she said gladly.
“But if it should reach the ears of your friends at Emminster that you are walking about like this with me, a milkmaid—”
“The most bewitching milkmaid ever seen.”
“They might feel it a hurt to their dignity.”
“My dear girl—a d’Urberville hurt the dignity of a Clare! It is a grand card to play—that of your belonging to such a family, and I am reserving it for a grand effect when we are married, and have the proofs of your descent from Parson Tringham. Apart from that, my future is to be totally foreign to my family—it will not affect even the surface of their lives. We shall leave this part of England—perhaps England itself—and what does it matter how people regard us here? You will like going, will you not?”
She could answer no more than a bare affirmative, so great was the emotion aroused in her at the thought of going through the world with him as his own familiar friend. Her feelings almost filled her ears like a babble of waves, and surged up to her eyes. She put her hand in his, and thus they went on, to a place where the reflected sun glared up from the river, under a bridge, with a molten-metallic glow that dazzled their eyes, though the sun itself was hidden by the bridge. They stood still, whereupon little furred and feathered heads popped up from the smooth surface of the water; but, finding that the disturbing presences had paused, and not passed by, they disappeared again. Upon this river-brink they lingered till the fog began to close round them—which was very early in the evening at this time of the year—settling on the lashes of her eyes, where it rested like crystals, and on his brows and hair.
They walked later on Sundays, when it was quite dark. Some of the dairy-people, who were also out of doors on the first Sunday evening after their engagement, heard her impulsive speeches, ecstasized to fragments, though they were too far off to hear the words discoursed; noted the spasmodic catch in her remarks, broken into syllables by the leapings of her heart, as she walked leaning on his arm; her contented pauses, the occasional little laugh upon which her soul seemed to ride—the laugh of a woman in company with the man she loves and has won from all other women—unlike anything else in nature. They marked the buoyancy of her tread, like the skim of a bird which has not quite alighted.
Her affection for him was now the breath and life of Tess’s being; it enveloped her as a photosphere, irradiated her into forgetfulness of her past sorrows, keeping back the gloomy spectres that would persist in their attempts to touch her—doubt, fear, moodiness, care, shame. She knew that they were waiting like wolves just outside the circumscribing light, but she had long spells of power to keep them in hungry subjection there.
A spiritual forgetfulness co-existed with an intellectual remembrance. She walked in brightness, but she knew that in the background those shapes of darkness were always spread. They might be receding, or they might be approaching, one or the other, a little every day.
One evening Tess and Clare were obliged to sit indoors keeping house, all the other occupants of the domicile being away. As they talked she looked thoughtfully up at him, and met his two appreciative eyes.
“I am not worthy of you—no, I am not!” she burst out, jumping up from her low stool as though appalled at his homage, and the fulness of her own joy thereat.
Clare, deeming the whole basis of her excitement to be that which was only the smaller part of it, said—
“I won’t have you speak like it, dear Tess! Distinction does not consist in the facile use of a contemptible set of conventions, but in being numbered among those who are true, and honest, and just, and pure, and lovely, and of good report—as you are, my Tess.”
She struggled with the sob in her throat. How often had that string of excellences made her young heart ache in church of late years, and how strange that he should have cited them now.
“Why didn’t you stay and love me when I—was sixteen; living with my little sisters and brothers, and you danced on the green? O, why didn’t you, why didn’t you!” she said, impetuously clasping her hands.
Angel began to comfort and reassure her, thinking to himself, truly enough, what a creature of moods she was, and how careful he would have to be of her when she depended for her happiness entirely on him.
“Ah—why didn’t I stay!” he said. “That is just what I feel. If I had only known! But you must not be so bitter in your regret—why should you be?”
With the woman’s instinct to hide she diverged hastily—
“I should have had four years more of your heart than I can ever have now. Then I should not have wasted my time as I have done—I should have had so much longer happiness!”
It was no mature woman with a long dark vista of intrigue behind her who was tormented thus, but a girl of simple life, not yet one-and twenty, who had been caught during her days of immaturity like a bird in a springe. To calm herself the more completely, she rose from her little stool and left the room, overturning the stool with her skirts as she went.
He sat on by the cheerful firelight thrown from a bundle of green ash-sticks laid across the dogs; the sticks snapped pleasantly, and hissed out bubbles of sap from their ends. When she came back she was herself again.
“Do you not think you are just a wee bit capricious, fitful, Tess?” he said, good-humouredly, as he spread a cushion for her on the stool, and seated himself in the settle beside her. “I wanted to ask you something, and just then you ran away.”
“Yes, perhaps I am capricious,” she murmured. She suddenly approached him, and put a hand upon each of his arms. “No, Angel, I am not really so—by nature, I mean!” The more particularly to assure him that she was not, she placed herself close to him in the settle, and allowed her head to find a resting-place against Clare’s shoulder. “What did you want to ask me—I am sure I will answer it,” she continued humbly.
“Well, you love me, and have agreed to marry me, and hence there follows a thirdly, ‘When shall the day be?’”
“I like living like this.”
“But I must think of starting in business on my own hook with the new year, or a little later. And before I get involved in the multifarious details of my new position, I should like to have secured my partner.”
“But,” she timidly answered, “to talk quite practically, wouldn’t it be best not to marry till after all that?—Though I can’t bear the thought o’ your going away and leaving me here!”
“Of course you cannot—and it is not best in this case. I want you to help me in many ways in making my start. When shall it be? Why not a fortnight from now?”
“No,” she said, becoming grave: “I have so many things to think of first.”
He drew her gently nearer to him.
The reality of marriage was startling when it loomed so near. Before discussion of the question had proceeded further there walked round the corner of the settle into the full firelight of the apartment Mr Dairyman Crick, Mrs Crick, and two of the milkmaids.
Tess sprang like an elastic ball from his side to her feet, while her face flushed and her eyes shone in the firelight.
“I knew how it would be if I sat so close to him!” she cried, with vexation. “I said to myself, they are sure to come and catch us! But I wasn’t really sitting on his knee, though it might ha’ seemed as if I was almost!”
“Well—if so be you hadn’t told us, I am sure we shouldn’t ha’ noticed that ye had been sitting anywhere at all in this light,” replied the dairyman. He continued to his wife, with the stolid mien of a man who understood nothing of the emotions relating to matrimony—“Now, Christianer, that shows that folks should never fancy other folks be supposing things when they bain’t. O no, I should never ha’ thought a word of where she was a sitting to, if she hadn’t told me—not I.”
“We are going to be married soon,” said Clare, with improvised phlegm.
“Ah—and be ye! Well, I am truly glad to hear it, sir. I’ve thought you mid do such a thing for some time. She’s too good for a dairymaid—I said so the very first day I zid her—and a prize for any man; and what’s more, a wonderful woman for a gentleman-farmer’s wife; he won’t be at the mercy of his baily wi’ her at his side.”
Somehow Tess disappeared. She had been even more struck with the look of the girls who followed Crick than abashed by Crick’s blunt praise.
After supper, when she reached her bedroom, they were all present. A light was burning, and each damsel was sitting up whitely in her bed, awaiting Tess, the whole like a row of avenging ghosts.
But she saw in a few moments that there was no malice in their mood. They could scarcely feel as a loss what they had never expected to have. Their condition was objective, contemplative.
“He’s going to marry her!” murmured Retty, never taking eyes off Tess. “How her face do show it!”
“You be going to marry him?” asked Marian.
“Yes,” said Tess.
They thought that this was evasiveness only.
“Yes—going to marry him—a gentleman!” repeated Izz Huett.
And by a sort of fascination the three girls, one after another, crept out of their beds, and came and stood barefooted round Tess. Retty put her hands upon Tess’s shoulders, as if to realize her friend’s corporeality after such a miracle, and the other two laid their arms round her waist, all looking into her face.
“How it do seem! Almost more than I can think of!” said Izz Huett.
Marian kissed Tess. “Yes,” she murmured as she withdrew her lips.
“Was that because of love for her, or because other lips have touched there by now?” continued Izz drily to Marian.
“I wasn’t thinking o’ that,” said Marian simply. “I was on’y feeling all the strangeness o’t—that she is to be his wife, and nobody else. I don’t say nay to it, nor either of us, because we did not think of it—only loved him. Still, nobody else is to marry’n in the world—no fine lady, nobody in silks and satins; but she who do live like we.”
“Are you sure you don’t dislike me for it?” said Tess in a low voice.
They hung about her in their white nightgowns before replying, as if they considered their answer might lie in her look.
“I don’t know—I don’t know,” murmured Retty Priddle. “I want to hate ’ee; but I cannot!”
“That’s how I feel,” echoed Izz and Marian. “I can’t hate her. Somehow she hinders me!”
“He ought to marry one of you,” murmured Tess.
“You are all better than I.”
“We better than you?” said the girls in a low, slow whisper. “No, no, dear Tess!”
“You are!” she contradicted impetuously. And suddenly tearing away from their clinging arms she burst into a hysterical fit of tears, bowing herself on the chest of drawers and repeating incessantly, “O yes, yes, yes!”
Having once given way she could not stop her weeping.
“He ought to have had one of you!” she cried. “I think I ought to make him even now! You would be better for him than—I don’t know what I’m saying! O! O!”
They went up to her and clasped her round, but still her sobs tore her.
“Get some water,” said Marian, “She’s upset by us, poor thing, poor thing!”
They gently led her back to the side of her bed, where they kissed her warmly.
“You are best for’n,” said Marian. “More ladylike, and a better scholar than we, especially since he had taught ’ee so much. But even you ought to be proud. You be proud, I’m sure!”
“Yes, I am,” she said; “and I am ashamed at so breaking down.”
When they were all in bed, and the light was out, Marian whispered across to her—
“You will think of us when you be his wife, Tess, and of how we told ’ee that we loved him, and how we tried not to hate you, and did not hate you, and could not hate you, because you were his choice, and we never hoped to be chose by him.”
They were not aware that, at these words, salt, stinging tears trickled down upon Tess’s pillow anew, and how she resolved, with a bursting heart, to tell all her history to Angel Clare, despite her mother’s command—to let him for whom she lived and breathed despise her if he would, and her mother regard her as a fool, rather then preserve a silence which might be deemed a treachery to him, and which somehow seemed a wrong to these.