Tess’s look had grown hard and worn, and her ripe mouth tragical; but she no longer showed any tremulousness. Clare’s revived thoughts of his father prevented his noticing her particularly; and so they went on down the white row of liquid rectangles till they had finished and drained them off, when the other maids returned, and took their pails, and Deb came to scald out the leads for the new milk. As Tess withdrew to go afield to the cows he said to her softly—
“And my question, Tessy?”
“O no—no!” replied she with grave hopelessness, as one who had heard anew the turmoil of her own past in the allusion to Alec d’Urberville. “It CAN’T be!”
She went out towards the mead, joining the other milkmaids with a bound, as if trying to make the open air drive away her sad constraint. All the girls drew onward to the spot where the cows were grazing in the farther mead, the bevy advancing with the bold grace of wild animals—the reckless, unchastened motion of women accustomed to unlimited space—in which they abandoned themselves to the air as a swimmer to the wave. It seemed natural enough to him now that Tess was again in sight to choose a mate from unconstrained Nature, and not from the abodes of Art.
Her refusal, though unexpected, did not permanently daunt Clare. His experience of women was great enough for him to be aware that the negative often meant nothing more than the preface to the affirmative; and it was little enough for him not to know that in the manner of the present negative there lay a great exception to the dallyings of coyness. That she had already permitted him to make love to her he read as an additional assurance, not fully trowing that in the fields and pastures to “sigh gratis” is by no means deemed waste; love-making being here more often accepted inconsiderately and for its own sweet sake than in the carking, anxious homes of the ambitious, where a girl’s craving for an establishment paralyzes her healthy thought of a passion as an end.
“Tess, why did you say ‘no’ in such a positive way?” he asked her in the course of a few days.
“Don’t ask me. I told you why—partly. I am not good enough—not worthy enough.”
“How? Not fine lady enough?”
“Yes—something like that,” murmured she. “Your friends would scorn me.”
“Indeed, you mistake them—my father and mother. As for my brothers, I don’t care—” He clasped his fingers behind her back to keep her from slipping away. “Now—you did not mean it, sweet?—I am sure you did not! You have made me so restless that I cannot read, or play, or do anything. I am in no hurry, Tess, but I want to know—to hear from your own warm lips—that you will some day be mine—any time you may choose; but some day?”
She could only shake her head and look away from him.