They drove by the level road along the valley to a distance of a few miles, and, reaching Wellbridge, turned away from the village to the left, and over the great Elizabethan bridge which gives the place half its name. Immediately behind it stood the house wherein they had engaged lodgings, whose exterior features are so well known to all travellers through the Froom Valley; once portion of a fine manorial residence, and the property and seat of a d’Urberville, but since its partial demolition a farmhouse.
“Welcome to one of your ancestral mansions!” said Clare as he handed her down. But he regretted the pleasantry; it was too near a satire.
On entering they found that, though they had only engaged a couple of rooms, the farmer had taken advantage of their proposed presence during the coming days to pay a New Year’s visit to some friends, leaving a woman from a neighbouring cottage to minister to their few wants. The absoluteness of possession pleased them, and they realized it as the first moment of their experience under their own exclusive roof-tree.
But he found that the mouldy old habitation somewhat depressed his bride. When the carriage was gone they ascended the stairs to wash their hands, the charwoman showing the way. On the landing Tess stopped and started.
“What’s the matter?” said he.
“Those horrid women!” she answered with a smile. “How they frightened me.”
He looked up, and perceived two life-size portraits on panels built into the masonry. As all visitors to the mansion are aware, these paintings represent women of middle age, of a date some two hundred years ago, whose lineaments once seen can never be forgotten. The long pointed features, narrow eye, and smirk of the one, so suggestive of merciless treachery; the bill-hook nose, large teeth, and bold eye of the other suggesting arrogance to the point of ferocity, haunt the beholder afterwards in his dreams.
“Whose portraits are those?” asked Clare of the charwoman.
“I have been told by old folk that they were ladies of the d’Urberville family, the ancient lords of this manor,” she said, “Owing to their being builded into the wall they can’t be moved away.”
The unpleasantness of the matter was that, in addition to their effect upon Tess, her fine features were unquestionably traceable in these exaggerated forms. He said nothing of this, however, and, regretting that he had gone out of his way to choose the house for their bridal time, went on into the adjoining room. The place having been rather hastily prepared for them, they washed their hands in one basin. Clare touched hers under the water.
“Which are my fingers and which are yours?” he said, looking up. “They are very much mixed.”
“They are all yours,” said she, very prettily, and endeavoured to be gayer than she was. He had not been displeased with her thoughtfulness on such an occasion; it was what every sensible woman would show: but Tess knew that she had been thoughtful to excess, and struggled against it.
The sun was so low on that short last afternoon of the year that it shone in through a small opening and formed a golden staff which stretched across to her skirt, where it made a spot like a paint-mark set upon her. They went into the ancient parlour to tea, and here they shared their first common meal alone. Such was their childishness, or rather his, that he found it interesting to use the same bread-and-butter plate as herself, and to brush crumbs from her lips with his own. He wondered a little that she did not enter into these frivolities with his own zest.
Looking at her silently for a long time; “She is a dear dear Tess,” he thought to himself, as one deciding on the true construction of a difficult passage. “Do I realize solemnly enough how utterly and irretrievably this little womanly thing is the creature of my good or bad faith and fortune? I think not. I think I could not, unless I were a woman myself. What I am in worldly estate, she is. What I become, she must become. What I cannot be, she cannot be. And shall I ever neglect her, or hurt her, or even forget to consider her? God forbid such a crime!”
They sat on over the tea-table waiting for their luggage, which the dairyman had promised to send before it grew dark. But evening began to close in, and the luggage did not arrive, and they had brought nothing more than they stood in. With the departure of the sun the calm mood of the winter day changed. Out of doors there began noises as of silk smartly rubbed; the restful dead leaves of the preceding autumn were stirred to irritated resurrection, and whirled about unwillingly, and tapped against the shutters. It soon began to rain.
“That cock knew the weather was going to change,” said Clare.
The woman who had attended upon them had gone home for the night, but she had placed candles upon the table, and now they lit them. Each candle-flame drew towards the fireplace.
“These old houses are so draughty,” continued Angel, looking at the flames, and at the grease guttering down the sides. “I wonder where that luggage is. We haven’t even a brush and comb.”
“I don’t know,” she answered, absent-minded.
“Tess, you are not a bit cheerful this evening—not at all as you used to be. Those harridans on the panels upstairs have unsettled you. I am sorry I brought you here. I wonder if you really love me, after all?”
He knew that she did, and the words had no serious intent; but she was surcharged with emotion, and winced like a wounded animal. Though she tried not to shed tears, she could not help showing one or two.
“I did not mean it!” said he, sorry. “You are worried at not having your things, I know. I cannot think why old Jonathan has not come with them. Why, it is seven o’clock? Ah, there he is!”
A knock had come to the door, and, there being nobody else to answer it, Clare went out. He returned to the room with a small package in his hand.
“It is not Jonathan, after all,” he said.
“How vexing!” said Tess.
The packet had been brought by a special messenger, who had arrived at Talbothays from Emminster Vicarage immediately after the departure of the married couple, and had followed them hither, being under injunction to deliver it into nobody’s hands but theirs. Clare brought it to the light. It was less than a foot long, sewed up in canvas, sealed in red wax with his father’s seal, and directed in his father’s hand to “Mrs Angel Clare.”
“It is a little wedding-present for you, Tess,” said he, handing it to her. “How thoughtful they are!”
Tess looked a little flustered as she took it.
“I think I would rather have you open it, dearest,” said she, turning over the parcel. “I don’t like to break those great seals; they look so serious. Please open it for me!”
He undid the parcel. Inside was a case of morocco leather, on the top of which lay a note and a key.
The note was for Clare, in the following words:
My dear son,—
Possibly you have forgotten that on the death of your godmother, Mrs Pitney, when you were a lad, she—vain, kind woman that she was—left to me a portion of the contents of her jewel-case in trust for your wife, if you should ever have one, as a mark of her affection for you and whomsoever you should choose. This trust I have fulfilled, and the diamonds have been locked up at my banker’s ever since. Though I feel it to be a somewhat incongruous act in the circumstances, I am, as you will see, bound to hand over the articles to the woman to whom the use of them for her lifetime will now rightly belong, and they are therefore promptly sent. They become, I believe, heirlooms, strictly speaking, according to the terms of your godmother’s will. The precise words of the clause that refers to this matter are enclosed.
“I do remember,” said Clare; “but I had quite forgotten.”
Unlocking the case, they found it to contain a necklace, with pendant, bracelets, and ear-rings; and also some other small ornaments.
Tess seemed afraid to touch them at first, but her eyes sparkled for a moment as much as the stones when Clare spread out the set.
“Are they mine?” she asked incredulously.
“They are, certainly,” said he.
He looked into the fire. He remembered how, when he was a lad of fifteen, his godmother, the Squire’s wife—the only rich person with whom he had ever come in contact—had pinned her faith to his success; had prophesied a wondrous career for him. There had seemed nothing at all out of keeping with such a conjectured career in the storing up of these showy ornaments for his wife and the wives of her descendants. They gleamed somewhat ironically now. “Yet why?” he asked himself. It was but a question of vanity throughout; and if that were admitted into one side of the equation it should be admitted into the other. His wife was a d’Urberville: whom could they become better than her?
Suddenly he said with enthusiasm—
“Tess, put them on—put them on!” And he turned from the fire to help her.
But as if by magic she had already donned them—necklace, ear-rings, bracelets, and all.
“But the gown isn’t right, Tess,” said Clare. “It ought to be a low one for a set of brilliants like that.”
“Ought it?” said Tess.
“Yes,” said he.
He suggested to her how to tuck in the upper edge of her bodice, so as to make it roughly approximate to the cut for evening wear; and when she had done this, and the pendant to the necklace hung isolated amid the whiteness of her throat, as it was designed to do, he stepped back to survey her.
“My heavens,” said Clare, “how beautiful you are!”
As everybody knows, fine feathers make fine birds; a peasant girl but very moderately prepossessing to the casual observer in her simple condition and attire will bloom as an amazing beauty if clothed as a woman of fashion with the aids that Art can render; while the beauty of the midnight crush would often cut but a sorry figure if placed inside the field-woman’s wrapper upon a monotonous acreage of turnips on a dull day. He had never till now estimated the artistic excellence of Tess’s limbs and features.
“If you were only to appear in a ball-room!” he said. “But no—no, dearest; I think I love you best in the wing-bonnet and cotton-frock—yes, better than in this, well as you support these dignities.”
Tess’s sense of her striking appearance had given her a flush of excitement, which was yet not happiness.
“I’ll take them off,” she said, “in case Jonathan should see me. They are not fit for me, are they? They must be sold, I suppose?”
“Let them stay a few minutes longer. Sell them? Never. It would be a breach of faith.”
Influenced by a second thought she readily obeyed. She had something to tell, and there might be help in these. She sat down with the jewels upon her; and they again indulged in conjectures as to where Jonathan could possibly be with their baggage. The ale they had poured out for his consumption when he came had gone flat with long standing.
Shortly after this they began supper, which was already laid on a side-table. Ere they had finished there was a jerk in the fire-smoke, the rising skein of which bulged out into the room, as if some giant had laid his hand on the chimney-top for a moment. It had been caused by the opening of the outer door. A heavy step was now heard in the passage, and Angel went out.
“I couldn’ make nobody hear at all by knocking,” apologized Jonathan Kail, for it was he at last; “and as’t was raining out I opened the door. I’ve brought the things, sir.”
“I am very glad to see them. But you are very late.”
“Well, yes, sir.”
There was something subdued in Jonathan Kail’s tone which had not been there in the day, and lines of concern were ploughed upon his forehead in addition to the lines of years. He continued—
“We’ve all been gallied at the dairy at what might ha’ been a most terrible affliction since you and your Mis’ess—so to name her now—left us this a’ternoon. Perhaps you ha’nt forgot the cock’s afternoon crow?”
“Well, some says it do mane one thing, and some another; but what’s happened is that poor little Retty Priddle hev tried to drown herself.”
“No! Really! Why, she bade us goodbye with the rest—”
“Yes. Well, sir, when you and your Mis’ess—so to name what she lawful is—when you two drove away, as I say, Retty and Marian put on their bonnets and went out; and as there is not much doing now, being New Year’s Eve, and folks mops and brooms from what’s inside ’em, nobody took much notice. They went on to Lew-Everard, where they had summut to drink, and then on they vamped to Dree-armed Cross, and there they seemed to have parted, Retty striking across the water-meads as if for home, and Marian going on to the next village, where there’s another public-house. Nothing more was zeed or heard o’ Retty till the waterman, on his way home, noticed something by the Great Pool; ’twas her bonnet and shawl packed up. In the water he found her. He and another man brought her home, thinking ’a was dead; but she fetched round by degrees.”
Angel, suddenly recollecting that Tess was overhearing this gloomy tale, went to shut the door between the passage and the ante-room to the inner parlour where she was; but his wife, flinging a shawl round her, had come to the outer room and was listening to the man’s narrative, her eyes resting absently on the luggage and the drops of rain glistening upon it.
“And, more than this, there’s Marian; she’s been found dead drunk by the withy-bed—a girl who hev never been known to touch anything before except shilling ale; though, to be sure, ’a was always a good trencher-woman, as her face showed. It seems as if the maids had all gone out o’ their minds!”
“And Izz?” asked Tess.
“Izz is about house as usual; but ’a do say ’a can guess how it happened; and she seems to be very low in mind about it, poor maid, as well she mid be. And so you see, sir, as all this happened just when we was packing your few traps and your Mis’ess’s night-rail and dressing things into the cart, why, it belated me.”
“Yes. Well, Jonathan, will you get the trunks upstairs, and drink a cup of ale, and hasten back as soon as you can, in case you should be wanted?”
Tess had gone back to the inner parlour, and sat down by the fire, looking wistfully into it. She heard Jonathan Kail’s heavy footsteps up and down the stairs till he had done placing the luggage, and heard him express his thanks for the ale her husband took out to him, and for the gratuity he received. Jonathan’s footsteps then died from the door, and his cart creaked away.
Angel slid forward the massive oak bar which secured the door, and coming in to where she sat over the hearth, pressed her cheeks between his hands from behind. He expected her to jump up gaily and unpack the toilet-gear that she had been so anxious about, but as she did not rise he sat down with her in the firelight, the candles on the supper-table being too thin and glimmering to interfere with its glow.
“I am so sorry you should have heard this sad story about the girls,” he said. “Still, don’t let it depress you. Retty was naturally morbid, you know.”
“Without the least cause,” said Tess. “While they who have cause to be, hide it, and pretend they are not.”
This incident had turned the scale for her. They were simple and innocent girls on whom the unhappiness of unrequited love had fallen; they had deserved better at the hands of Fate. She had deserved worse—yet she was the chosen one. It was wicked of her to take all without paying. She would pay to the uttermost farthing; she would tell, there and then. This final determination she came to when she looked into the fire, he holding her hand.
A steady glare from the now flameless embers painted the sides and back of the fireplace with its colour, and the well-polished andirons, and the old brass tongs that would not meet. The underside of the mantel-shelf was flushed with the high-coloured light, and the legs of the table nearest the fire. Tess’s face and neck reflected the same warmth, which each gem turned into an Aldebaran or a Sirius—a constellation of white, red, and green flashes, that interchanged their hues with her every pulsation.
“Do you remember what we said to each other this morning about telling our faults?” he asked abruptly, finding that she still remained immovable. “We spoke lightly perhaps, and you may well have done so. But for me it was no light promise. I want to make a confession to you, Love.”
This, from him, so unexpectedly apposite, had the effect upon her of a Providential interposition.
“You have to confess something?” she said quickly, and even with gladness and relief.
“You did not expect it? Ah—you thought too highly of me. Now listen. Put your head there, because I want you to forgive me, and not to be indignant with me for not telling you before, as perhaps I ought to have done.”
How strange it was! He seemed to be her double. She did not speak, and Clare went on—
“I did not mention it because I was afraid of endangering my chance of you, darling, the great prize of my life—my Fellowship I call you. My brother’s Fellowship was won at his college, mine at Talbothays Dairy. Well, I would not risk it. I was going to tell you a month ago—at the time you agreed to be mine, but I could not; I thought it might frighten you away from me. I put it off; then I thought I would tell you yesterday, to give you a chance at least of escaping me. But I did not. And I did not this morning, when you proposed our confessing our faults on the landing—the sinner that I was! But I must, now I see you sitting there so solemnly. I wonder if you will forgive me?”
“O yes! I am sure that—”
“Well, I hope so. But wait a minute. You don’t know. To begin at the beginning. Though I imagine my poor father fears that I am one of the eternally lost for my doctrines, I am of course, a believer in good morals, Tess, as much as you. I used to wish to be a teacher of men, and it was a great disappointment to me when I found I could not enter the Church. I admired spotlessness, even though I could lay no claim to it, and hated impurity, as I hope I do now. Whatever one may think of plenary inspiration, one must heartily subscribe to these words of Paul: ‘Be thou an example—in word, in conversation, in charity, in spirit, in faith, in purity.’ It is the only safeguard for us poor human beings. ‘Integer vitae,’ says a Roman poet, who is strange company for St Paul—
The man of upright life, from frailties free,
Stands not in need of Moorish spear or bow.
“Well, a certain place is paved with good intentions, and having felt all that so strongly, you will see what a terrible remorse it bred in me when, in the midst of my fine aims for other people, I myself fell.”
He then told her of that time of his life to which allusion has been made when, tossed about by doubts and difficulties in London, like a cork on the waves, he plunged into eight-and-forty hours’ dissipation with a stranger.
“Happily I awoke almost immediately to a sense of my folly,” he continued. “I would have no more to say to her, and I came home. I have never repeated the offence. But I felt I should like to treat you with perfect frankness and honour, and I could not do so without telling this. Do you forgive me?”
She pressed his hand tightly for an answer.
“Then we will dismiss it at once and for ever!—too painful as it is for the occasion—and talk of something lighter.”
“O, Angel—I am almost glad—because now you can forgive me! I have not made my confession. I have a confession, too—remember, I said so.”
“Ah, to be sure! Now then for it, wicked little one.”
“Perhaps, although you smile, it is as serious as yours, or more so.”
“It can hardly be more serious, dearest.”
“It cannot—O no, it cannot!” She jumped up joyfully at the hope. “No, it cannot be more serious, certainly,” she cried, “because ’tis just the same! I will tell you now.”
She sat down again.
Their hands were still joined. The ashes under the grate were lit by the fire vertically, like a torrid waste. Imagination might have beheld a Last Day luridness in this red-coaled glow, which fell on his face and hand, and on hers, peering into the loose hair about her brow, and firing the delicate skin underneath. A large shadow of her shape rose upon the wall and ceiling. She bent forward, at which each diamond on her neck gave a sinister wink like a toad’s; and pressing her forehead against his temple she entered on her story of her acquaintance with Alec d’Urberville and its results, murmuring the words without flinching, and with her eyelids drooping down.