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Thomas Hardy >> Tess of the d'Urbervilles (page 4)


Mrs Durbeyfield, having quickly walked hitherward after parting from Tess, opened the front door, crossed the downstairs room, which was in deep gloom, and then unfastened the stair-door like one whose fingers knew the tricks of the latches well. Her ascent of the crooked staircase was a slower process, and her face, as it rose into the light above the last stair, encountered the gaze of all the party assembled in the bedroom.

''-Being a few private friends I've asked in to keep up club-walking at my own expense,'' the landlady exclaimed at the sound of footsteps, as glibly as a child repeating the Catechism, while she peered over the stairs. ''Oh, 'tis you, Mrs Durbeyfield-Lard-how you frightened me!-I thought it might be some gaffer sent by Gover'ment.''

Mrs Durbeyfield was welcomed with glances and nods by the remainder of the conclave, and turned to where her husband sat. He was humming absently to himself, in a low tone: ''I be as good as some folks here and there! I've got a great family vault at KingsbereЦ sub-Greenhill, and finer skillentons than any man in Wessex!''

''I've something to tell 'ee that's come into my head about that-a grand projick!'' whispered his cheerful wife. ''Here, John, don't 'ee see me?'' She nudged him, while he, looking through her as through a window-pane, went on with his recitative.

''Hush! Don't 'ee sing so loud, my good man,'' said the landlady; ''in case any member of the Gover'ment should be passing, and take away my licends.''

''He's told 'ee what's happened to us, I suppose?'' asked Mrs Durbeyfield.

''Yes-in a way. D'ye think there's any money hanging by it?''

''Ah, that's the secret,'' said Joan Durbeyfield sagely. ''However, 'tis well to be kin to a coach, even if you don't ride in 'en.'' She dropped her public voice, and continued in a low tone to her husband: ''I've been thinking since you brought the news that there's a great rich lady out by Trantridge, on the edge o' The Chase, of the name of d'Urberville.''

''Hey-what's that?'' said Sir John.

She repeated the information. ''That lady must be our relation,'' she said. ''And my projick is to send Tess to claim kin.''

''There IS a lady of the name, now you mention it,'' said Durbeyfield. ''Pa'son Tringham didn't think of that. But she's nothing beside we-a junior branch of us, no doubt, hailing long since King Norman's day.''

While this question was being discussed neither of the pair noticed, in their preoccupation, that little Abraham had crept into the room, and was awaiting an opportunity of asking them to return.

''She is rich, and she'd be sure to take notice o' the maid,'' continued Mrs Durbeyfield; ''and 'twill be a very good thing. I don't see why two branches o' one family should not be on visiting terms.''

''Yes; and we'll all claim kin!'' said Abraham brightly from under the bedstead. ''And we'll all go and see her when Tess has gone to live with her; and we'll ride in her coach and wear black clothes!''

''How do you come here, child? What nonsense be ye talking! Go away, and play on the stairs till father and mother be ready! Е Well, Tess ought to go to this other member of our family. She'd be sure to win the lady-Tess would; and likely enough 'twould lead to some noble gentleman marrying her. In short, I know it.''

''How?''

''I tried her fate in the FORTUNE-TELLER, and it brought out that very thing! Е You should ha' seen how pretty she looked today; her skin is as sumple as a duchess's.''

''What says the maid herself to going?''

''I've not asked her. She don't know there is any such lady-relation yet. But it would certainly put her in the way of a grand marriage, and she won't say nay to going.''

''Tess is queer.''

''But she's tractable at bottom. Leave her to me.''

Though this conversation had been private, sufficient of its import reached the understandings of those around to suggest to them that the Durbeyfields had weightier concerns to talk of now than common folks had, and that Tess, their pretty eldest daughter, had fine prospects in store.

''Tess is a fine figure o' fun, as I said to myself today when I zeed her vamping round parish with the rest,'' observed one of the elderly boozers in an undertone. ''But Joan Durbeyfield must mind that she don't get green malt in floor.'' It was a local phrase which had a peculiar meaning, and there was no reply.

The conversation became inclusive, and presently other footsteps were heard crossing the room below.

''-Being a few private friends asked in tonight to keep up club-walking at my own expense.'' The landlady had rapidly re-used the formula she kept on hand for intruders before she recognized that the newcomer was Tess.

Even to her mother's gaze the girl's young features looked sadly out of place amid the alcoholic vapours which floated here as no unsuitable medium for wrinkled middle-age; and hardly was a reproachful flash from Tess's dark eyes needed to make her father and mother rise from their seats, hastily finish their ale, and descend the stairs behind her, Mrs Rolliver's caution following their footsteps.

''No noise, please, if ye'll be so good, my dears; or I mid lose my licends, and be summons'd, and I don't know what all! 'Night t'ye!''

They went home together, Tess holding one arm of her father, and Mrs Durbeyfield the other. He had, in truth, drunk very little-not a fourth of the quantity which a systematic tippler could carry to church on a Sunday afternoon without a hitch in his eastings of genuflections; but the weakness of Sir John's constitution made mountains of his petty sins in this kind. On reaching the fresh air he was sufficiently unsteady to incline the row of three at one moment as if they were marching to London, and at another as if they were marching to Bath-which produced a comical effect, frequent enough in families on nocturnal homegoings; and, like most comical effects, not quite so comic after all. The two women valiantly disguised these forced excursions and countermarches as well as they could from Durbeyfield their cause, and from Abraham, and from themselves; and so they approached by degrees their own door, the head of the family bursting suddenly into his former refrain as he drew near, as if to fortify his soul at sight of the smallness of his present residence-

''I've got a fam-ily vault at Kingsbere!''

''Hush-don't be so silly, Jacky,'' said his wife. ''Yours is not the only family that was of 'count in wold days. Look at the Anktells, and Horseys, and the Tringhams themselves-gone to seed a'most as much as you-though you was bigger folks then they, that's true. Thank God, I was never of no family, and have nothing to be ashamed of in that way!''

''Don't you be so sure o' that. From you nater 'tis my belief you've disgraced yourselves more than any o' us, and was kings and queens outright at one time.''

Tess turned the subject by saying what was far more prominent in her own mind at the moment than thoughts of her ancestry-''I am afraid father won't be able to take the journey with the beehives tomorrow so early.''

''I? I shall be all right in an hour or two,'' said Durbeyfield.
It was eleven o'clock before the family were all in bed, and two o'clock next morning was the latest hour for starting with the beehives if they were to be delivered to the retailers in Casterbridge before the Saturday market began, the way thither lying by bad roads over a distance of between twenty and thirty miles, and the horse and waggon being of the slowest. At half-past one Mrs Durbeyfield came into the large bedroom where Tess and all her little brothers and sisters slept.

''The poor man can't go,'' she said to her eldest daughter, whose great eyes had opened the moment her mother's hand touched the door.

Tess sat up in bed, lost in a vague interspace between a dream and this information.

''But somebody must go,'' she replied. ''It is late for the hives already. Swarming will soon be over for the year; and it we put off taking 'em till next week's market the call for 'em will be past, and they'll be thrown on our hands.''

Mrs Durbeyfield looked unequal to the emergency. ''Some young feller, perhaps, would go? One of them who were so much after dancing with 'ee yesterday,'' she presently suggested.

''O no-I wouldn't have it for the world!'' declared Tess proudly. ''And letting everybody know the reason-such a thing to be ashamed of! I think I could go if Abraham could go with me to kip me company.''

Her mother at length agreed to this arrangement. Little Abraham was aroused from his deep sleep in a corner of the same apartment, and made to put on his clothes while still mentally in the other world. Meanwhile Tess had hastily dressed herself; and the twain, lighting a lantern, went out to the stable. The rickety little waggon was already laden, and the girl led out the horse Prince, only a degree less rickety than the vehicle.

The poor creature looked wonderingly round at the night, at the lantern, at their two figures, as if he could not believe that at that hour, when every living thing was intended to be in shelter and at rest, he was called upon to go out and labour. They put a stock of candle-ends into the lantern, hung the latter to the off-side of the load, and directed the horse onward, walking at his shoulder at first during the uphill parts of the way, in order not to overload an animal of so little vigour. To cheer themselves as well as they could, they made an artificial morning with the lantern, some bread and butter, and their own conversation, the real morning being far from come. Abraham, as he more fully awoke (for he had moved in a sort of trance so far), began to talk of the strange shapes assumed by the various dark objects against the sky; of this tree that looked like a raging tiger springing from a lair; of that which resembled a giant's head.

When they had passed the little town of Stourcastle, dumbly somnolent under its thick brown thatch, they reached higher ground. Still higher, on their left, the elevation called Bulbarrow or Bealbarrow, well-nigh the highest in South Wessex, swelled into the sky, engirdled by its earthen trenches. From hereabout the long road was fairly level for some distance onward. They mounted in front of the waggon, and Abraham grew reflective.

''Tess!'' he said in a preparatory tone, after a silence.

''Yes, Abraham.''

''Bain't you glad that we've become gentlefolk?''

''Not particular glad.''

''But you be glad that you 'm going to marry a gentleman?''

''What?'' said Tess, lifting her face.

''That our great relation will help 'ee to marry a gentleman.''

''I? Our great relation? We have no such relation. What has put that into your head?''

''I heard 'em talking about it up at Rolliver's when I went to find father. There's a rich lady of our family out at Trantridge, and mother said that if you claimed kin with the lady, she'd put 'ee in the way of marrying a gentleman.''

His sister became abruptly still, and lapsed into a pondering silence. Abraham talked on, rather for the pleasure of utterance than for audition, so that his sister's abstraction was of no account. He leant back against the hives, and with upturned face made observations on the stars, whose cold pulses were beating amid the black hollows above, in serene dissociation from these two wisps of human life. He asked how far away those twinklers were, and whether God was on the other side of them. But ever and anon his childish prattle recurred to what impressed his imagination even more deeply than the wonders of creation. If Tess were made rich by marrying a gentleman, would she have money enough to buy a spyglass so large that it would draw the stars as near to her as Nettlecombe-Tout?

The renewed subject, which seemed to have impregnated the whole family, filled Tess with impatience.

''Never mind that now!'' she exclaimed.

''Did you say the stars were worlds, Tess?''

''Yes.''

''All like ours?''

''I don't know; but I think so. They sometimes seem to be like the apples on our stubbard-tree. Most of them splendid and sound-a few blighted.''

''Which do we live on-a splendid one or a blighted one?''

''A blighted one.''

'''Tis very unlucky that we didn't pitch on a sound one, when there were so many more of 'em!''

''Yes.''

''Is it like that REALLY, Tess?'' said Abraham, turning to her much impressed, on reconsideration of this rare information. ''How would it have been if we had pitched on a sound one?''

''Well, father wouldn't have coughed and creeped about as he does, and wouldn't have got too tipsy to go on this journey; and mother wouldn't have been always washing, and never getting finished.''

''And you would have been a rich lady ready-made, and not have had to be made rich by marrying a gentleman?''

Title: Tess of the d'Urbervilles
Author: Thomas Hardy
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