The basket was heavy and the bundle was large, but she lugged them along like a person who did not find her especial burden in material things. Occasionally she stopped to rest in a mechanical way by some gate or post; and then, giving the baggage another hitch upon her full round arm, went steadily on again.
It was a Sunday morning in late October, about four months after Tess Durbeyfield’s arrival at Trantridge, and some few weeks subsequent to the night ride in The Chase. The time was not long past daybreak, and the yellow luminosity upon the horizon behind her back lighted the ridge towards which her face was set—the barrier of the vale wherein she had of late been a stranger—which she would have to climb over to reach her birthplace. The ascent was gradual on this side, and the soil and scenery differed much from those within Blakemore Vale. Even the character and accent of the two peoples had shades of difference, despite the amalgamating effects of a roundabout railway; so that, though less than twenty miles from the place of her sojourn at Trantridge, her native village had seemed a far-away spot. The field-folk shut in there traded northward and westward, travelled, courted, and married northward and westward, thought northward and westward; those on this side mainly directed their energies and attention to the east and south.
The incline was the same down which d’Urberville had driven her so wildly on that day in June. Tess went up the remainder of its length without stopping, and on reaching the edge of the escarpment gazed over the familiar green world beyond, now half-veiled in mist. It was always beautiful from here; it was terribly beautiful to Tess to-day, for since her eyes last fell upon it she had learnt that the serpent hisses where the sweet birds sing, and her views of life had been totally changed for her by the lesson. Verily another girl than the simple one she had been at home was she who, bowed by thought, stood still here, and turned to look behind her. She could not bear to look forward into the Vale.
Ascending by the long white road that Tess herself had just laboured up, she saw a two-wheeled vehicle, beside which walked a man, who held up his hand to attract her attention.
She obeyed the signal to wait for him with unspeculative repose, and in a few minutes man and horse stopped beside her.
“Why did you slip away by stealth like this?” said d’Urberville, with upbraiding breathlessness; “on a Sunday morning, too, when people were all in bed! I only discovered it by accident, and I have been driving like the deuce to overtake you. Just look at the mare. Why go off like this? You know that nobody wished to hinder your going. And how unnecessary it has been for you to toil along on foot, and encumber yourself with this heavy load! I have followed like a madman, simply to drive you the rest of the distance, if you won’t come back.”
“I shan’t come back,” said she.
“I thought you wouldn’t—I said so! Well, then, put up your basket, and let me help you on.”
She listlessly placed her basket and bundle within the dog-cart, and stepped up, and they sat side by side. She had no fear of him now, and in the cause of her confidence her sorrow lay.
D’Urberville mechanically lit a cigar, and the journey was continued with broken unemotional conversation on the commonplace objects by the wayside. He had quite forgotten his struggle to kiss her when, in the early summer, they had driven in the opposite direction along the same road. But she had not, and she sat now, like a puppet, replying to his remarks in monosyllables. After some miles they came in view of the clump of trees beyond which the village of Marlott stood. It was only then that her still face showed the least emotion, a tear or two beginning to trickle down.
“What are you crying for?” he coldly asked.
“I was only thinking that I was born over there,” murmured Tess.
“Well—we must all be born somewhere.”
“I wish I had never been born—there or anywhere else!”
“Pooh! Well, if you didn’t wish to come to Trantridge why did you come?”
She did not reply.
“You didn’t come for love of me, that I’ll swear.”
“’Tis quite true. If I had gone for love o’ you, if I had ever sincerely loved you, if I loved you still, I should not so loathe and hate myself for my weakness as I do now!… My eyes were dazed by you for a little, and that was all.”
He shrugged his shoulders. She resumed—
“I didn’t understand your meaning till it was too late.”
“That’s what every woman says.”
“How can you dare to use such words!” she cried, turning impetuously upon him, her eyes flashing as the latent spirit (of which he was to see more some day) awoke in her. “My God! I could knock you out of the gig! Did it never strike your mind that what every woman says some women may feel?”
“Very well,” he said, laughing; “I am sorry to wound you. I did wrong—I admit it.” He dropped into some little bitterness as he continued: “Only you needn’t be so everlastingly flinging it in my face. I am ready to pay to the uttermost farthing. You know you need not work in the fields or the dairies again. You know you may clothe yourself with the best, instead of in the bald plain way you have lately affected, as if you couldn’t get a ribbon more than you earn.”
Her lip lifted slightly, though there was little scorn, as a rule, in her large and impulsive nature.
“I have said I will not take anything more from you, and I will not—I cannot! I should be your creature to go on doing that, and I won’t!”
“One would think you were a princess from your manner, in addition to a true and original d’Urberville—ha! ha! Well, Tess, dear, I can say no more. I suppose I am a bad fellow—a damn bad fellow. I was born bad, and I have lived bad, and I shall die bad in all probability. But, upon my lost soul, I won’t be bad towards you again, Tess. And if certain circumstances should arise—you understand—in which you are in the least need, the least difficulty, send me one line, and you shall have by return whatever you require. I may not be at Trantridge—I am going to London for a time—I can’t stand the old woman. But all letters will be forwarded.”
She said that she did not wish him to drive her further, and they stopped just under the clump of trees. D’Urberville alighted, and lifted her down bodily in his arms, afterwards placing her articles on the ground beside her. She bowed to him slightly, her eye just lingering in his; and then she turned to take the parcels for departure.
Alec d’Urberville removed his cigar, bent towards her, and said—
“You are not going to turn away like that, dear! Come!”
“If you wish,” she answered indifferently. “See how you’ve mastered me!”
She thereupon turned round and lifted her face to his, and remained like a marble term while he imprinted a kiss upon her cheek—half perfunctorily, half as if zest had not yet quite died out. Her eyes vaguely rested upon the remotest trees in the lane while the kiss was given, as though she were nearly unconscious of what he did.
“Now the other side, for old acquaintance’ sake.”
She turned her head in the same passive way, as one might turn at the request of a sketcher or hairdresser, and he kissed the other side, his lips touching cheeks that were damp and smoothly chill as the skin of the mushrooms in the fields around.
“You don’t give me your mouth and kiss me back. You never willingly do that—you’ll never love me, I fear.”
“I have said so, often. It is true. I have never really and truly loved you, and I think I never can.” She added mournfully, “Perhaps, of all things, a lie on this thing would do the most good to me now; but I have honour enough left, little as ’tis, not to tell that lie. If I did love you, I may have the best o’ causes for letting you know it. But I don’t.”
He emitted a laboured breath, as if the scene were getting rather oppressive to his heart, or to his conscience, or to his gentility.
“Well, you are absurdly melancholy, Tess. I have no reason for flattering you now, and I can say plainly that you need not be so sad. You can hold your own for beauty against any woman of these parts, gentle or simple; I say it to you as a practical man and well-wisher. If you are wise you will show it to the world more than you do before it fades… And yet, Tess, will you come back to me! Upon my soul, I don’t like to let you go like this!”
“Never, never! I made up my mind as soon as I saw—what I ought to have seen sooner; and I won’t come.”
“Then good morning, my four months’ cousin—good-bye!”
He leapt up lightly, arranged the reins, and was gone between the tall red-berried hedges.
Tess did not look after him, but slowly wound along the crooked lane. It was still early, and though the sun’s lower limb was just free of the hill, his rays, ungenial and peering, addressed the eye rather than the touch as yet. There was not a human soul near. Sad October and her sadder self seemed the only two existences haunting that lane.
As she walked, however, some footsteps approached behind her, the footsteps of a man; and owing to the briskness of his advance he was close at her heels and had said “Good morning” before she had been long aware of his propinquity. He appeared to be an artisan of some sort, and carried a tin pot of red paint in his hand. He asked in a business-like manner if he should take her basket, which she permitted him to do, walking beside him.
“It is early to be astir this Sabbath morn!” he said cheerfully.
“Yes,” said Tess.
“When most people are at rest from their week’s work.”
She also assented to this.
“Though I do more real work to-day than all the week besides.”
“All the week I work for the glory of man, and on Sunday for the glory of God. That’s more real than the other—hey? I have a little to do here at this stile.” The man turned, as he spoke, to an opening at the roadside leading into a pasture. “If you’ll wait a moment,” he added, “I shall not be long.”
As he had her basket she could not well do otherwise; and she waited, observing him. He set down her basket and the tin pot, and stirring the paint with the brush that was in it began painting large square letters on the middle board of the three composing the stile, placing a comma after each word, as if to give pause while that word was driven well home to the reader’s heart—
THY, DAMNATION, SLUMBERETH, NOT.
2 Pet. ii. 3.
Against the peaceful landscape, the pale, decaying tints of the copses, the blue air of the horizon, and the lichened stile-boards, these staring vermilion words shone forth. They seemed to shout themselves out and make the atmosphere ring. Some people might have cried “Alas, poor Theology!” at the hideous defacement—the last grotesque phase of a creed which had served mankind well in its time. But the words entered Tess with accusatory horror. It was as if this man had known her recent history; yet he was a total stranger.
Having finished his text he picked up her basket, and she mechanically resumed her walk beside him.
“Do you believe what you paint?” she asked in low tones.
“Believe that tex? Do I believe in my own existence!”
“But,” said she tremulously, “suppose your sin was not of your own seeking?”
He shook his head.
“I cannot split hairs on that burning query,” he said. “I have walked hundreds of miles this past summer, painting these texes on every wall, gate, and stile the length and breadth of this district. I leave their application to the hearts of the people who read ’em.”
“I think they are horrible,” said Tess. “Crushing! Killing!”
“That’s what they are meant to be!” he replied in a trade voice. “But you should read my hottest ones—them I kips for slums and seaports. They’d make ye wriggle! Not but what this is a very good tex for rural districts…. Ah—there’s a nice bit of blank wall up by that barn standing to waste. I must put one there—one that it will be good for dangerous young females like yerself to heed. Will ye wait, missy?”
“No,” said she; and taking her basket Tess trudged on. A little way forward she turned her head. The old gray wall began to advertise a similar fiery lettering to the first, with a strange and unwonted mien, as if distressed at duties it had never before been called upon to perform. It was with a sudden flush that she read and realized what was to be the inscription he was now halfway through—
THOU, SHALT, NOT, COMMIT—
Her cheerful friend saw her looking, stopped his brush, and shouted—
“If you want to ask for edification on these things of moment, there’s a very earnest good man going to preach a charity-sermon to-day in the parish you are going to—Mr Clare of Emminster. I’m not of his persuasion now, but he’s a good man, and he’ll expound as well as any parson I know. ’Twas he began the work in me.”
But Tess did not answer; she throbbingly resumed her walk, her eyes fixed on the ground. “Pooh—I don’t believe God said such things!” she murmured contemptuously when her flush had died away.
A plume of smoke soared up suddenly from her father’s chimney, the sight of which made her heart ache. The aspect of the interior, when she reached it, made her heart ache more. Her mother, who had just come downstairs, turned to greet her from the fireplace, where she was kindling barked-oak twigs under the breakfast kettle. The young children were still above, as was also her father, it being Sunday morning, when he felt justified in lying an additional half-hour.
“Well!—my dear Tess!” exclaimed her surprised mother, jumping up and kissing the girl. “How be ye? I didn’t see you till you was in upon me! Have you come home to be married?”
“No, I have not come for that, mother.”
“Then for a holiday?”
“Yes—for a holiday; for a long holiday,” said Tess.
“What, isn’t your cousin going to do the handsome thing?”
“He’s not my cousin, and he’s not going to marry me.”
Her mother eyed her narrowly.
“Come, you have not told me all,” she said.
Then Tess went up to her mother, put her face upon Joan’s neck, and told.
“And yet th’st not got him to marry ’ee!” reiterated her mother. “Any woman would have done it but you, after that!”
“Perhaps any woman would except me.”
“It would have been something like a story to come back with, if you had!” continued Mrs Durbeyfield, ready to burst into tears of vexation. “After all the talk about you and him which has reached us here, who would have expected it to end like this! Why didn’t ye think of doing some good for your family instead o’ thinking only of yourself? See how I’ve got to teave and slave, and your poor weak father with his heart clogged like a dripping-pan. I did hope for something to come out o’ this! To see what a pretty pair you and he made that day when you drove away together four months ago! See what he has given us—all, as we thought, because we were his kin. But if he’s not, it must have been done because of his love for ’ee. And yet you’ve not got him to marry!”
Get Alec d’Urberville in the mind to marry her! He marry her! On matrimony he had never once said a word. And what if he had? How a convulsive snatching at social salvation might have impelled her to answer him she could not say. But her poor foolish mother little knew her present feeling towards this man. Perhaps it was unusual in the circumstances, unlucky, unaccountable; but there it was; and this, as she had said, was what made her detest herself. She had never wholly cared for him; she did not at all care for him now. She had dreaded him, winced before him, succumbed to adroit advantages he took of her helplessness; then, temporarily blinded by his ardent manners, had been stirred to confused surrender awhile: had suddenly despised and disliked him, and had run away. That was all. Hate him she did not quite; but he was dust and ashes to her, and even for her name’s sake she scarcely wished to marry him.
“You ought to have been more careful if you didn’t mean to get him to make you his wife!”
“O mother, my mother!” cried the agonized girl, turning passionately upon her parent as if her poor heart would break. “How could I be expected to know? I was a child when I left this house four months ago. Why didn’t you tell me there was danger in men-folk? Why didn’t you warn me? Ladies know what to fend hands against, because they read novels that tell them of these tricks; but I never had the chance o’ learning in that way, and you did not help me!”
Her mother was subdued.
“I thought if I spoke of his fond feelings and what they might lead to, you would be hontish wi’ him and lose your chance,” she murmured, wiping her eyes with her apron. “Well, we must make the best of it, I suppose. ’Tis nater, after all, and what do please God!”