'''Tis a thousand pities your husband can't see 'ee now-you do look a real beauty!''
said Izz Huett, regarding Tess as she stood on the threshold between the steely
starlight without the yellow candlelight within. Izz spoke with a magnanimous abandonment
of herself to the situation; she could not be-no woman with a heart bigger than
a hazel-nut could be-antagonistic to Tess in her presence, the influence which she
exercised over those of her own sex being of a warmth and strength quite unusual,
curiously overpowering the less worthy feminine feelings of spite and rivalry.
With a final tug and touch here, and a slight brush there, they let her go; and
she was absorbed into the pearly air of the fore-dawn. They heard her footsteps
tap along the hard road as she stepped out to her full pace. Even Izz hoped she
would win, and, though without any particular respect for her own virtue, felt glad
that she had been prevented wronging her friend when momentarily tempted by Clare.
It was a year ago, all but a day, that Clare had married Tess, and only a few
days less than a year that he had been absent from her. Still, to start on a brisk
walk, and on such an errand as hers, on a dry clear wintry morning, through the
rarefied air of these chalky hogs'-backs, was not depressing; and there is no doubt
that her dream at starting was to win the heart of her mother-in-law, tell her whole
history to that lady, enlist her on her side, and so gain back the truant.
In time she reached the edge of the vast escarpment below which stretched the
loamy Vale of Blackmoor, now lying misty and still in the dawn. Instead of the colourless
air of the uplands the atmosphere down there was a deep blue. Instead of the great
enclosures of a hundred acres in which she was now accustomed to toil there were
little fields below her of less than half-a-dozen acres, so numerous that they looked
from this height like the meshes of a net. Here the landscape was whitey-brown;
down there, as in Froom Valley, it was always green. Yet is was in that vale that
her sorrow had taken shape, and she did not love it as formerly. Beauty to her,
as to all who have felt, lay not in the thing, but in what the thing symbolized.
Keeping the Vale on her right she steered steadily westward; passing above the
Hintocks, crossing at right-angles the high-road from Sherton-Abbas to Casterbridge,
and skirting Dogbury Hill and High-Stoy, with the dell between them called ''The
Devil's Kitchen''. Still following the elevated way she reached Cross-in-Hand, where
the stone pillar stands desolate and silent, to mark the site of a miracle, or murder,
or both. Three miles further she cut across the straight and deserted Roman road
called Long-Ash Lane; leaving which as soon as she reached it she dipped down a
hill by a transverse lane into the small town or village of Evershead, being now
about halfway over the distance. She made a halt here, and breakfasted a second
time, heartily enough-not at the Sow-and-Acorn, for she avoided inns, but at a cottage
by the church.
The second half of her journey was through a more gentle country, by way of Benvill
Lane. But as the mileage lessened between her and the spot of her pilgrimage, so
did Tess's confidence decrease, and her enterprise loom out more formidably. She
saw her purpose in such staring lines, and the landscape so faintly, that she was
sometimes in danger of losing her way. However, about noon she paused by a gate
on the edge of the basin in which Emminster and its Vicarage lay.
The square tower, beneath which she knew that at that moment the Vicar and his
congregation were gathered, had a severe look in her eyes. She wished that she had
somehow contrived to come on a week-day. Such a good man might be prejudiced against
a woman who had chosen Sunday, never realizing the necessities of her case. But
it was incumbent upon her to go on now. She took off the thick boots in which she
had walked thus far, put on her pretty thin ones of patent leather, and, stuffing
the former into the hedge by the gatepost where she might readily find them again,
descended the hill; the freshness of colour she had derived from the keen air thinning
away in spite of her as she drew near the parsonage.
Tess hoped for some accident that might favour her, but nothing favoured her.
The scrubs on the Vicarage lawn rustled uncomfortably in the frosty breeze; she
could not feel by any stretch of imagination, dressed to her highest as she was,
that the house was the residence of near relations; and yet nothing essential, in
nature or emotion, divided her from them: in pains, pleasures, thoughts, birth,
death, and after-death, they were the same.
She nerved herself by an effort, entered the swing-gate, and rang the door-bell.
The thing was done; there could be no retreat. No; the thing was not done. Nobody
answered to her ringing. The effort had be risen to and made again. She rang a second
time, and the agitation of the act, coupled with her weariness after the fifteen
miles' walk, led her support herself while she waited by resting her hand on her
hip, and her elbow against the wall of the porch. The wind was so nipping that the
ivy-leaves had become wizened and gray, each tapping incessantly upon its neighbour
with a disquieting stir of her nerves. A piece of blood-stained paper, caught up
from some meat-buyer's dust-heap, beat up and down the road without the gate; too
flimsy to rest, too heavy to fly away; and a few straws kept it company.
The second peal had been louder, and still nobody came. Then she walked out of
the porch, opened the gate, and passed through. And though she looked dubiously
at the house-front as if inclined to return, it was with a breath of relied that
she closed the gate. A feeling haunted her that she might have been recognized (though
how she could not tell), and orders been given not to admit her.
Tess went as far as the corner. She had done all she could do; but determined
not to escape present trepidation at the expense of future distress, she walked
back again quite past the house, looking up at all the windows.
Ah-the explanation was that they were all at church, every one. She remembered
her husband saying that his father always insisted upon the household, servants
included, going to morning-service, and, as a consequence, eating cold food when
they came home. It was, therefore, only necessary to wait till the service was over.
She would not make herself conspicuous by waiting on the spot, and she started to
get past the church into the lane. But as she reached the churchyard-gate the people
began pouring out, and Tess found herself in the midst of them.
The Emminster congregation looked at her as only a congregation of small country-townsfolk
walking home at its leisure can look at a woman out of the common whom it perceives
to be a stranger. She quickened her pace, and ascended the the road by which she
had come, to find a retreat between its hedges till the Vicar's family should have
lunched, and it might be convenient for them to receive her. She soon distanced
the churchgoers, except two youngish men, who, linked arm-in-arm, were beating up
behind her at a quick step.
As they drew nearer she could hear their voices engaged in earnest discourse,
and, with the natural quickness of a woman in her situation, did not fail to recognize
in those noises the quality of her husband's tones. The pedestrians were his two
brothers. Forgetting all her plans, Tess's one dread was lest they should overtake
her now, in her disorganized condition, before she was prepared to confront them;
for though she felt that they could not identify her she instinctively dreaded their
scrutiny. The more briskly they walked the more briskly walked she. They were plainly
bent upon taking a short quick stroll before going indoors to lunch or dinner, to
restore warmth to limbs chilled with sitting through a long service.
Only one person had preceded Tess up the hill-a ladylike young woman, somewhat
interesting, though, perhaps, a trifle GUINDEE and prudish. Tess had nearly overtaken
her when the speed of her brothers-in-law brought them so nearly behind her back
that she could hear every word of their conversation. They said nothing, however,
which particularly interested her till, observing the young lady still further in
front, one of them remarked, ''There is Mercy Chant. Let us overtake her.''
Tess knew the name. It was the woman who had been destined for Angel's life-companion
by his and her parents, and whom he probably would have married but for her intrusive
self. She would have know as much without previous information if she had waited
a moment, for one of the brothers proceeded to say: ''Ah! poor Angel, poor Angel!
I never see that nice girl without more and more regretting his precipitancy in
throwing himself away upon a dairymaid, or whatever she may be. It is a queer business,
apparently. Whether she has joined him yet or not I don't know; but she had not
done so some months ago when I heard from him.''
''I can't say. He never tells me anything nowadays. His ill-considered marriage
seems to have completed that estrangement from me which was begun by his extraordinary
Tess beat up the long hill still faster; but she could not outwalk them without
exciting notice. At last they outsped her altogether, and passed her by. The young
lady still further ahead heard their footsteps and turned. Then there was a greeting
and a shaking of hands, and the three went on together.
They soon reached the summit of the hill, and, evidently intending this point
to be the limit of their promenade, slackened pace and turned all three aside to
the gate whereat Tess had paused an hour before that time to reconnoitre the town
before descending into it. During their discourse one of the clerical brothers probed
the hedge carefully with his umbrella, and dragged something to light.
''Here's a pair of old boots,'' he said. ''Thrown away, I suppose, by some tramp
''Some imposter who wished to come into the town barefoot, perhaps, and so excite
our sympathies,'' said Miss Chant. ''Yes, it must have been, for they are excellent
walking-boots-by no means worn out. What a wicked thing to do! I'll carry them home
for some poor person.''
Cuthbert Clare, who had been the one to find them, picked them up for her with
the crook of his stick; and Tess's boots were appropriated.
She, who had heard this, walked past under the screen of her woollen veil, till,
presently looking back, she perceived that the church party had left the gate with
her boots and retreated down the hill.
Thereupon our heroine resumed her walk. Tears, blinding tears, were running down
her face. She knew that it was all sentiment, all baseless impressibility, which
had caused her to read the scene as her own condemnation; nevertheless she could
not get over it; she could not contravene in her own defenceless person all those
untoward omens. It was impossible to think of returning to the Vicarage. Angel's
wife felt almost as if she had been hounded up that hill like a scorned thing by
those-to her-superfine clerics. Innocently as the slight had been inflicted, it
was somewhat unfortunate that she had encountered the sons and not the father, who,
despite his narrowness, was far less starched and ironed than they, and had to the
full the gift of charity. As she again though of her dusty boots she almost pitied
those habiliments for the quizzing to which they had been subjected, and felt how
hopeless life was for their owner.
''Ah!'' she said, still sighing in pity of herself, ''THEY didn't know that I
wore those over the roughest part of the road to save these pretty ones HE bought
for me-no-they did not know it! And they didn't think that HE chose the colour o'
my pretty frock-no-how could they? If they had known perhaps they would not have
cared, for they don't care much for him, poor thing!''
Then she grieved for the beloved man whose conventional standard of judgement
had caused her all these latter sorrows; and she went her way without knowing that
the greatest misfortune of her life was this feminine loss of courage at the last
and critical moment through her estimating her father-in-law by his sons. Her present
condition was precisely one which would have enlisted the sympathies of old Mr and
Mrs Clare. Their hearts went out of them at a bound towards extreme cases, when
the subtle mental troubles of the less desperate among mankind failed to win their
interest or regard. In jumping at Publicans and Sinners they would forget that a
word might be said for the worries of Scribes and Pharisees; and this defect or
limitation might have recommended their own daughter-in-law to them at this moment
as a fairly choice sort of lost person for their love.
Thereupon she began to plod back along the road by which she had come not altogether
full of hope, but full of a conviction that a crisis in her life was approaching.
No crisis, apparently, had supervened; and there was nothing left for her to do
but to continue upon that starve-acre farm till she could again summon courage to
face the Vicarage. She did, indeed, take sufficient interest in herself to throw
up her veil on this return journey, as if to let the world see that she could at
least exhibit a face such as Mercy Chant could not show. But it was done with a
sorry shake of the head. ''It is nothing-it is nothing!'' she said. ''Nobody loves
it; nobody sees it. Who cares about the looks of a castaway like me!''
Her journey back was rather a meander than a march. It had no sprightliness,
no purpose; only a tendency. Along the tedious length of Benvill Lane she began
to grow tired, and she leant upon gates and paused by milestones.
She did not enter any house till, at the seventh or eighth mile, she descended
the steep long hill below which lay the village or townlet of Evershead, where in
the morning she had breakfasted with such contrasting expectations. The cottage
by the church, in which she again sat down, was almost the first at that end of
the village, and while the woman fetched her some milk from the pantry, Tess, looking
down the street, perceived that the place seemed quite deserted.