They were breaking up the masses of curd before putting them into the vats. The operation resembled the act of crumbling bread on a large scale; and amid the immaculate whiteness of the curds Tess Durbeyfield’s hands showed themselves of the pinkness of the rose. Angel, who was filling the vats with his handful, suddenly ceased, and laid his hands flat upon hers. Her sleeves were rolled far above the elbow, and bending lower he kissed the inside vein of her soft arm.
Although the early September weather was sultry, her arm, from her dabbling in the curds, was as cold and damp to his mouth as a new-gathered mushroom, and tasted of the whey. But she was such a sheaf of susceptibilities that her pulse was accelerated by the touch, her blood driven to her finder-ends, and the cool arms flushed hot. Then, as though her heart had said, “Is coyness longer necessary? Truth is truth between man and woman, as between man and man,” she lifted her eyes and they beamed devotedly into his, as her lip rose in a tender half-smile.
“Do you know why I did that, Tess?” he said.
“Because you love me very much!”
“Yes, and as a preliminary to a new entreaty.”
She looked a sudden fear that her resistance might break down under her own desire.
“O, Tessy!” he went on, “I CANNOT think why you are so tantalizing. Why do you disappoint me so? You seem almost like a coquette, upon my life you do—a coquette of the first urban water! They blow hot and blow cold, just as you do, and it is the very last sort of thing to expect to find in a retreat like Talbothays. ... And yet, dearest,” he quickly added, observing now the remark had cut her, “I know you to be the most honest, spotless creature that ever lived. So how can I suppose you a flirt? Tess, why don’t you like the idea of being my wife, if you love me as you seem to do?”
“I have never said I don’t like the idea, and I never could say it; because—it isn’t true!”
The stress now getting beyond endurance, her lip quivered, and she was obliged to go away. Clare was so pained and perplexed that he ran after and caught her in the passage.
“Tell me, tell me!” he said, passionately clasping her, in forgetfulness of his curdy hands: “do tell me that you won’t belong to anybody but me!”
“I will, I will tell you!” she exclaimed. “And I will give you a complete answer, if you will let me go now. I will tell you my experiences—all about myself—all!”
“Your experiences, dear; yes, certainly; any number.” He expressed assent in loving satire, looking into her face. “My Tess, no doubt, almost as many experiences as that wild convolvulus out there on the garden hedge, that opened itself this morning for the first time. Tell me anything, but don’t use that wretched expression any more about not being worthy of me.”
“I will try—not! And I’ll give you my reasons to-morrow—next week.”