The banded ones were all dressed in white gowns-a gay survival from Old Style
days, when cheerfulness and May-time were synonyms-days before the habit of taking
long views had reduced emotions to a monotonous average. Their first exhibition
of themselves was in a processional march of two and two round the parish. Ideal
and real clashed slightly as the sun lit up their figures against the green hedges
and creeper-laced house-fronts; for, though the whole troop wore white garments,
no two whites were alike among them. Some approached pure blanching; some had a
bluish pallor; some worn by the older characters (which had possibly lain by folded
for many a year) inclined to a cadaverous tint, and to a Georgian style.
In addition to the distinction of a white frock, every woman and girl carried
in her right hand a peeled willow wand, and in her left a bunch of white flowers.
The peeling of the former, and the selection of the latter, had been an operation
of personal care.
There were a few middle-aged and even elderly women in the train, their silver-wiry
hair and wrinkled faces, scourged by time and trouble, having almost a grotesque,
certainly a pathetic, appearance in such a jaunty situation. In a true view, perhaps,
there was more to be gathered and told of each anxious and experienced one, to whom
the years were drawing nigh when she should say, ''I have no pleasure in them,''
than of her juvenile comrades. But let the elder be passed over here for those under
whose bodices the life throbbed quick and warm.
The young girls formed, indeed, the majority of the band,and their heads of luxuriant
hair reflected in the sunshine every tone of gold, and black, and brown. Some had
beautiful eyes, others a beautiful nose, others a beautiful mouth and figure: few,
if any, had all. A difficulty of arranging their lips in this crude exposure to
public scrutiny, an inability to balance their heads, and to dissociate self-consciousness
from their features, was apparent in them, and showed that they were genuine country
girls, unaccustomed to many eyes.
And as each and all of them were warmed without by the sun, so each had a private
little sun for her soul to bask in; some dream, some affection, some hobby, at least
some remote and distant hope which, though perhaps starving to nothing, still lived
on, as hopes will. They they were all cheerful, and many of them merry.
They came round by The Pure Drop Inn, and were turning out of the high road to
pass through a wicket-gate into the meadows, when one of the women said-
''The Load-a-Lord! Why, Tess Durbeyfield, if there isn't thy father riding hwome
in a carriage!''
A young member of the band turned her head at the exclamation. She was a fine
and handsome girl-not handsomer than some others, possibly-but her mobile peony
mouth and large innocent eyes added eloquence to colour and shape. She wore a red
ribbon in her hair, and was the only one of the white company who could boast of
such a pronounced adornment. As she looked round Durbeyfield was seen moving along
the road in a chaise belonging to the The Pure Drop, driven by a frizzle-headed
brawny damsel with her gown-sleeves rolled above her elbows. This was the cheerful
servant of that establishment, who, in her part of factotum, turned groom and ostler
at times. Durbeyfield, leaning back, and with his eyes closed luxuriously, was waving
his hand above his head, and singing in a slow recitative-
The clubbists tittered, except the girl called Tess– in whom a slow heat seemed
to rise at the sense that her father was making himself foolish in their eyes.
''He's tired, that's all,'' she said hastily, ''and he has got a lift home, because
our own horse has to rest today.''
''Bless thy simplicity, Tess,'' said her companions. ''He's got his market-nitch.
''Look here; I won't walk another inch with you, if you say any jokes about him!''
Tess cried, and the colour upon her cheeks spread over her face and neck. In a moment
her eyes grew moist, and her glance drooped to the ground. Perceiving that they
had really pained her they said no more, and order again prevailed. Tess's pride
would not allow her to turn her head again, to learn what her father's meaning was,
if he had any; and thus she moved on with the whole body to the enclosure where
there was to be dancing on the green. By the time the spot was reached she has recovered
her equanimity, and tapped her neighbour with her wand and talked as usual.
Tess Durbeyfield at this time of her life was a mere vessel of emotion untinctured
by experience. The dialect was on her tongue to some extent, despite the village
school: the characteristic intonation of that dialect for this district being the
voicing approximately rendered by the syllable UR, probably as rich an utterance
as any to be found in human speech. The pouted-up deep red mouth to which this syllable
was native had hardly as yet settled into its definite shape, and her lower lip
had a way of thrusting the middle of her top one upward, when they closed together
after a word.
Phases of her childhood lurked in her aspect still. As she walked along today,
for all her bouncing handsome womanliness, you could sometimes see her twelfth year
in her cheeks, or her ninth sparkling from her eyes; and even her fifth would flit
over the curves of her mouth now and then.
Yet few knew, and still fewer considered this. A small minority, mainly strangers,
would look long at her in casually passing by, and grow momentarily fascinated by
her freshness, and wonder if they would ever see her again: but to almost everybody
she was a fine and picturesque country girl, and no more.
Nothing was seen or heard further of Durbeyfield in his triumphal chariot under
the conduct of the ostleress, and the club having entered the allotted space, dancing
began. As there were no men in the company the girls danced at first with each other,
but when the hour for the close of labour drew on, the masculine inhabitants of
the village, together with other idlers and pedestrians, gathered round the spot,
and appeared inclined to negotiate for a partner.
Among these on-lookers were three young men of a superior class, carrying small
knapsacks strapped to their shoulders, and stout sticks in their hands. Their general
likeness to each other, and their consecutive ages, would almost have suggested
that they might be, what in fact they were, brothers. The eldest wore the white
tie, high waistcoat, and thin-brimmed hat of the regulation curate; the second was
the normal undergraduate; the appearance of the third and youngest would hardly
have been sufficient to characterize him; there was an uncribbed, uncabined aspect
in his eyes and attire, implying that he had hardly as yet found the entrance to
his professional groove. That he was a desultory tentative student of something
and everything might only have been predicted of him.
These three brethren told casual acquaintance that they were spending their Whitsun
holidays in a walking tour through the Vale of Blackmoor, their course being southwesterly
from the town of Shaston on the north-east. dh They leant over the gate by the highway,
and inquired as to the meaning of the dance and the white-frocked maids. The two
elder of the brothers were plainly not intending to linger more than a moment, but
the spectacle of a bevy of girls dancing without male partners seemed to amuse the
third, and make him in no hurry to move on. He unstrapped his knapsack, put it,
with his stick, on the hedge-bank, and opened the gate.
''What are you going to do, Angel?'' asked the eldest.
''I am inclined to go and have a fling with them. Why not all of us-just for
a minute or two-it will not detain us long?''
''No-no; nonsense!'' said the first. ''Dancing in public with a troop of country
hoydens-suppose we should be seen! Come along, or it will be dark before we get
to Stourcastle, and there's no place we can sleep at nearer than that; besides,
we must get through another chapter of A COUNTERBLAST TO AGNOSTICISM before we turn
in, now I have taken the trouble to bring the book.''
''All right-I'll overtake you and Cuthbert in five minutes; don't stop; I give
my word that I will, Felix.''
The two elder reluctantly left him and walked on, taking their brother's knapsack
to relieve him in following, and the youngest entered the field.
''This is a thousand pities,'' he said gallantly, to two or three of the girls
nearest him, as soon as there was a pause in the dance. ''Where are your partners,
''They've not left off work yet,'' answered one of the boldest. ''They'll be
here by and by. Till then, will you be one, sir?''
''Certainly. But what's one among so many!''
''Better than none. 'Tis melancholy work facing and footing it to one of your
own sort, and no clipsing and colling at all. Now, pick and choose.''
'''Ssh-don't be so for'ard!'' said a shyer girl.
The young man, thus invited, clanged them over, and attempted some discrimination;
but, as the group were all so new to him, he could not very well exercise it. He
took almost the first that came to hand, which was not the speaker, as she had expected;
nor did it happen to be Tess Durbeyfield. Pedigree, ancestral skeletons, monumental
record, the d'Urberville lineaments, did not help Tess in her life's battle as yet,
even to the extent of attracting to her a dancing-partner over the heads of the
commonest peasantry. So much for Norman blood unaided by Victorian lucre.
The name of the eclipsing girl, whatever it was, has not been handed down; but
she was envied by all as the first who enjoyed the luxury of a masculine partner
that evening. Yet such was the force of example that the village young men, who
had not hastened to enter the gate while no intruder was in the way, now dropped
in quickly, and soon the couples became leavened with rustic youth to a marked extent,
till at length the plainest woman in the club was no longer compelled to foot it
on the masculine side of the figure.
The church clock struck, when suddenly the student said that he must leave-he
had been forgetting himself– he had to join his companions. As he fell out of the
dance his eyes lighted on Tess Durbeyfield, whose own large orbs wore, to tell the
truth, the faintest aspect of reproach that he had not chosen her. He, too, was
sorry then that, owing to her backwardness, he had not observed her; and with that
in his mind he left the pasture.
On account of his long delay he started in a flying-run down the lane westward,
and had soon passed the hollow and mounted the next rise. He had not yet overtaken
his brothers, but he paused to get breath, and looked back. He could see the white
figures of the girls in the green enclosure whirling about as they had whirled when
he was among them. They seemed to have quite forgotten him already.
All of them, except, perhaps, one. This white shape stood apart by the hedge
alone. From her position he knew it to be the pretty maiden with whom he had not
danced. Trifling as the matter was, he yet instinctively felt that she was hurt
by his oversight. He wished that he had asked her; he wished that he had inquired
her name. She was so modest, so expressive, she had looked so soft in her thin white
gown that he felt he had acted stupidly.
However, it could not be helped, and turning, and bending himself to a rapid
walk, he dismissed the subject from his mind.
As for Tess Durbeyfield, she did not so easily dislodge the incident from her consideration.
She had no spirit to dance again for a long time, though she might have had plenty
of partners; but ah! they did not speak so nicely as the strange young man had done.
It was not till the rays of the sun had absorbed the young stranger's retreating
figure on the hill that she shook off her temporary sadness and answered her would-be
partner in the affirmative.
She remained with her comrades till dusk, and participated with a certain zest
in the dancing; though, being heart-whole as yet, she enjoyed treading a measure
purely for its own sake; little divining when she saw ''the soft torments, the bitter
sweets, the pleasing pains, and the agreeable distresses'' of those girls who had
been wooed and won, what she herself was capable of in that kind. The struggles
and wrangles of the lads for her hand in a jig were an amusement to her-no more;
and when they became fierce she rebuked them.
She might have stayed even later, but the incident of her father's odd appearance
and manner returned upon the girl's mind to make her anxious, and wondering what
had become of him she dropped away from the dancers and bent her steps towards the
end of the village at which the parental cottage lay.
While yet many score yards off, other rhythmic sounds than those she had quitted
became audible to her; sounds that she knew well-so well. They were a regular series
of thumpings from the interior of the house, occasioned by the violent rocking of
a cradle upon a stone floor, to which movement a feminine voice kept time by singing,
in a vigorous gallopade, the favourite ditty of ''The Spotted Cow''-
I saw her lie do'-own in yon'-der green gro'-ove;
Come, love!' and I'll tell' you where!'
The cradle-rocking and the song would cease simultaneously for a moment, and
an explanation at highest vocal pitch would take the place of the melody.
''God bless thy diment eyes! And thy waxen cheeks! And thy cherry mouth! And
thy Cubit's thighs! And every bit o' thy blessed body!''
After this invocation the rocking and the singing would recommence, and the ''Spotted
Cow'' proceed as before. So matters stood when Tess opened the door, and paused
upon the mat within it surveying the scene.