“Why,” he said aridly; “I have come all the way here to see you to-day! But I started from home to go to Casterbridge Fair, where I have undertaken to preach the Word from a waggon at half-past two this afternoon, and where all the brethren are expecting me this minute. Here’s the announcement.”
He drew from his breast-pocket a poster whereon was printed the day, hour, and place of meeting, at which he, d’Urberville, would preach the Gospel as aforesaid.
“But how can you get there?” said Tess, looking at the clock.
“I cannot get there! I have come here.”
“What, you have really arranged to preach, and—”
“I have arranged to preach, and I shall not be there—by reason of my burning desire to see a woman whom I once despised!—No, by my word and truth, I never despised you; if I had I should not love you now! Why I did not despise you was on account of your being unsmirched in spite of all; you withdrew yourself from me so quickly and resolutely when you saw the situation; you did not remain at my pleasure; so there was one petticoat in the world for whom I had no contempt, and you are she. But you may well despise me now! I thought I worshipped on the mountains, but I find I still serve in the groves! Ha! ha!”
“O Alec d’Urberville! what does this mean? What have I done!”
“Done?” he said, with a soulless sneer in the word. “Nothing intentionally. But you have been the means—the innocent means—of my backsliding, as they call it. I ask myself, am I, indeed, one of those ‘servants of corruption’ who, ’after they have escaped the pollutions of the world, are again entangled therein and overcome’— whose latter end is worse than their beginning?” He laid his hand on her shoulder. “Tess, my girl, I was on the way to, at least, social salvation till I saw you again!” he said freakishly shaking her, as if she were a child. “And why then have you tempted me? I was firm as a man could be till I saw those eyes and that mouth again—surely there never was such a maddening mouth since Eve’s!” His voice sank, and a hot archness shot from his own black eyes. “You temptress, Tess; you dear damned witch of Babylon—I could not resist you as soon as I met you again!”
“I couldn’t help your seeing me again!” said Tess, recoiling.
“I know it—I repeat that I do not blame you. But the fact remains. When I saw you ill-used on the farm that day I was nearly mad to think that I had no legal right to protect you—that I could not have it; whilst he who has it seems to neglect you utterly!”
“Don’t speak against him—he is absent!” she cried in much excitement. “Treat him honourably—he has never wronged you! O leave his wife before any scandal spreads that may do harm to his honest name!”
“I will—I will,” he said, like a man awakening from a luring dream. “I have broken my engagement to preach to those poor drunken boobies at the fair—it is the first time I have played such a practical joke. A month ago I should have been horrified at such a possibility. I’ll go away—to swear—and—ah, can I! to keep away.” Then, suddenly: “One clasp, Tessy—one! Only for old friendship—”