“What are you going to do, Angel?” asked the eldest.
“I am inclined to go and have a fling with them. Why not all of us—just for a minute or two—it will not detain us long?”
“No—no; nonsense!” said the first. “Dancing in public with a troop of country hoydens—suppose we should be seen! Come along, or it will be dark before we get to Stourcastle, and there’s no place we can sleep at nearer than that; besides, we must get through another chapter of A Counterblast to Agnosticism before we turn in, now I have taken the trouble to bring the book.”
“All right—I’ll overtake you and Cuthbert in five minutes; don’t stop; I give my word that I will, Felix.”
The two elder reluctantly left him and walked on, taking their brother’s knapsack to relieve him in following, and the youngest entered the field.
“This is a thousand pities,” he said gallantly, to two or three of the girls nearest him, as soon as there was a pause in the dance. “Where are your partners, my dears?”
“They’ve not left off work yet,” answered one of the boldest. “They’ll be here by and by. Till then, will you be one, sir?”
“Certainly. But what’s one among so many!”
“Better than none. ’Tis melancholy work facing and footing it to one of your own sort, and no clipsing and colling at all. Now, pick and choose.”
“’Ssh—don’t be so for’ard!” said a shyer girl.
The young man, thus invited, glanced them over, and attempted some discrimination; but, as the group were all so new to him, he could not very well exercise it. He took almost the first that came to hand, which was not the speaker, as she had expected; nor did it happen to be Tess Durbeyfield. Pedigree, ancestral skeletons, monumental record, the d’Urberville lineaments, did not help Tess in her life’s battle as yet, even to the extent of attracting to her a dancing-partner over the heads of the commonest peasantry. So much for Norman blood unaided by Victorian lucre.
The name of the eclipsing girl, whatever it was, has not been handed down; but she was envied by all as the first who enjoyed the luxury of a masculine partner that evening. Yet such was the force of example that the village young men, who had not hastened to enter the gate while no intruder was in the way, now dropped in quickly, and soon the couples became leavened with rustic youth to a marked extent, till at length the plainest woman in the club was no longer compelled to foot it on the masculine side of the figure.
The church clock struck, when suddenly the student said that he must leave—he had been forgetting himself—he had to join his companions. As he fell out of the dance his eyes lighted on Tess Durbeyfield, whose own large orbs wore, to tell the truth, the faintest aspect of reproach that he had not chosen her. He, too, was sorry then that, owing to her backwardness, he had not observed her; and with that in his mind he left the pasture.