As soon as she drew close to it she discovered all in a moment that the figure was a living person; and the shock to her sense of not having been alone was so violent that she was quite overcome, and sank down nigh to fainting, not however till she had recognized Alec d’Urberville in the form. He leapt off the slab and supported her. “I saw you come in,” he said smiling, “and got up there not to interrupt your meditations. A family gathering, is it not, with these old fellows under us here? Listen.” He stamped with his heel heavily on the floor; whereupon there arose a hollow echo from below. “That shook them a bit, I’ll warrant,” he continued. “And you thought I was the mere stone reproduction of one of them. But no. The old order changeth. The little finger of the sham d’Urberville can do more for you than the whole dynasty of the real underneath. . . . Now command me. What shall I do?”
Having sought shelter for her family in the ancient clan’s church in Chapter LII, Tess has gone out walking at night and has come upon her family vault and Alec d’Urberville. Hardy’s irony is deep here: originally, the knowledge that Tess belongs to the d’Urberville line brings her into tragic conflict with Alec, and here those ancestors and Alec are united before her dazed eyes. The two main factors in her sad fate are brought together for her viewing. Moreover, it is ironic that Alec is at first mistaken for one of the sculpted ancestors, as if the distinction between the truly noble d’Urbervilles and the “sham” ones—to use Alec’s own word—is not as important as it first seemed. They are all part of the same display. Whether true or fake, the d’Urbervilles have brought Tess only grief. When Alec stomps on the floor of the crypt and a “hollow echo from below” is heard, we feel that those ancestors may indeed be nothing more than an empty void, a meaningless nothingness. Alec believes he is different from them, since he has power over her while they do not, but in fact he is just like them, using his power like a grand lord although he is quite hollow. He promises empty advantages to her, like the wealth she eventually receives from him, that can never be more important than love. This scene in the corpse-ridden vault shows how dead all thoughts of personal grandeur are next to the life of true feeling, like that of Tess’s feelings for Angel.