And then for the first time in their lives they shopped as partners in one concern. It was Christmas Eve, with its loads a holly and mistletoe, and the town was very full of strangers who had come in from all parts of the country on account of the day. Tess paid the penalty of walking about with happiness superadded to beauty on her countenance by being much stared at as she moved amid them on his arm.
In the evening they returned to the inn at which they had put up, and Tess waited in the entry while Angel went to see the horse and gig brought to the door. The general sitting-room was full of guests, who were continually going in and out. As the door opened and shut each time for the passage of these, the light within the parlour fell full upon Tess’s face. Two men came out and passed by her among the rest. One of them had stared her up and down in surprise, and she fancied he was a Trantridge man, though that village lay so many miles off that Trantridge folk were rarities here.
“A comely maid that,” said the other.
“True, comely enough. But unless I make a great mistake—” And he negatived the remainder of the definition forthwith.
Clare had just returned from the stable-yard, and, confronting the man on the threshold, heard the words, and saw the shrinking of Tess. The insult to her stung him to the quick, and before he had considered anything at all he struck the man on the chin with the full force of his fist, sending him staggering backwards into the passage.
The man recovered himself, and seemed inclined to come on, and Clare, stepping outside the door, put himself in a posture of defence. But his opponent began to think better of the matter. He looked anew at Tess as he passed her, and said to Clare—
“I beg pardon, sir; ’twas a complete mistake. I thought she was another woman, forty miles from here.”
Clare, feeling then that he had been too hasty, and that he was, moreover, to blame for leaving her standing in an inn-passage, did what he usually did in such cases, gave the man five shillings to plaster the blow; and thus they parted, bidding each other a pacific good night. As soon as Clare had taken the reins from the ostler, and the young couple had driven off, the two men went in the other direction.
“And was it a mistake?” said the second one.
“Not a bit of it. But I didn’t want to hurt the gentleman’s feelings—not I.”
In the meantime the lovers were driving onward.
“Could we put off our wedding till a little later?” Tess asked in a dry dull voice. “I mean if we wished?”
“No, my love. Calm yourself. Do you mean that the fellow may have time to summon me for assault?” he asked good-humouredly.
“No—I only meant—if it should have to be put off.”
What she meant was not very clear, and he directed her to dismiss such fancies from her mind, which she obediently did as well as she could. But she was grave, very grave, all the way home; till she thought, “We shall go away, a very long distance, hundreds of miles from these parts, and such as this can never happen again, and no ghost of the past reach there.”