While they stood clinging to the bank they heard a splashing round the bend of the road, and presently appeared Angel Clare, advancing along the lane towards them through the water.
Four hearts gave a big throb simultaneously.
His aspect was probably as un-Sabbatarian a one as a dogmatic parson’s son often presented; his attire being his dairy clothes, long wading boots, a cabbage-leaf inside his hat to keep his head cool, with a thistle-spud to finish him off. “He’s not going to church,” said Marian.
“No—I wish he was!” murmured Tess.
Angel, in fact, rightly or wrongly (to adopt the safe phrase of evasive controversialists), preferred sermons in stones to sermons in churches and chapels on fine summer days. This morning, moreover, he had gone out to see if the damage to the hay by the flood was considerable or not. On his walk he observed the girls from a long distance, though they had been so occupied with their difficulties of passage as not to notice him. He knew that the water had risen at that spot, and that it would quite check their progress. So he had hastened on, with a dim idea of how he could help them—one of them in particular.
The rosy-cheeked, bright-eyed quartet looked so charming in their light summer attire, clinging to the roadside bank like pigeons on a roof-slope, that he stopped a moment to regard them before coming close. Their gauzy skirts had brushed up from the grass innumerable flies and butterflies which, unable to escape, remained caged in the transparent tissue as in an aviary. Angel’s eye at last fell upon Tess, the hindmost of the four; she, being full of suppressed laughter at their dilemma, could not help meeting his glance radiantly.
He came beneath them in the water, which did not rise over his long boots; and stood looking at the entrapped flies and butterflies.
“Are you trying to get to church?” he said to Marian, who was in front, including the next two in his remark, but avoiding Tess.
“Yes, sir; and ’tis getting late; and my colour do come up so—”
“I’ll carry you through the pool—every Jill of you.”
The whole four flushed as if one heart beat through them.
“I think you can’t, sir,” said Marian.
“It is the only way for you to get past. Stand still. Nonsense—you are not too heavy! I’d carry you all four together. Now, Marian, attend,” he continued, “and put your arms round my shoulders, so. Now! Hold on. That’s well done.”
Marian had lowered herself upon his arm and shoulder as directed, and Angel strode off with her, his slim figure, as viewed from behind, looking like the mere stem to the great nosegay suggested by hers. They disappeared round the curve of the road, and only his sousing footsteps and the top ribbon of Marian’s bonnet told where they were. In a few minutes he reappeared. Izz Huett was the next in order upon the bank.