Differing one from another in natures and moods so greatly as they did, they yet formed, bending, a curiously uniform row—automatic, noiseless; and an alien observer passing down the neighbouring lane might well have been excused for massing them as “Hodge”. As they crept along, stooping low to discern the plant, a soft yellow gleam was reflected from the buttercups into their shaded faces, giving them an elfish, moonlit aspect, though the sun was pouring upon their backs in all the strength of noon.
Angel Clare, who communistically stuck to his rule of taking part with the rest in everything, glanced up now and then. It was not, of course, by accident that he walked next to Tess.
“Well, how are you?” he murmured.
“Very well, thank you, sir,” she replied demurely.
As they had been discussing a score of personal matters only half-an-hour before, the introductory style seemed a little superfluous. But they got no further in speech just then. They crept and crept, the hem of her petticoat just touching his gaiter, and his elbow sometimes brushing hers. At last the dairyman, who came next, could stand it no longer.
“Upon my soul and body, this here stooping do fairly make my back open and shut!” he exclaimed, straightening himself slowly with an excruciated look till quite upright. “And you, maidy Tess, you wasn’t well a day or two ago—this will make your head ache finely! Don’t do any more, if you feel fainty; leave the rest to finish it.”
Dairyman Crick withdrew, and Tess dropped behind. Mr Clare also stepped out of line, and began privateering about for the weed. When she found him near her, her very tension at what she had heard the night before made her the first to speak.
“Don’t they look pretty?” she said.
“Izzy Huett and Retty.”
Tess had moodily decided that either of these maidens would make a good farmer’s wife, and that she ought to recommend them, and obscure her own wretched charms.
“Pretty? Well, yes—they are pretty girls—fresh looking. I have often thought so.”
“Though, poor dears, prettiness won’t last long!”
“O no, unfortunately.”
“They are excellent dairywomen.”
“Yes: though not better than you.”
“They skim better than I.”
Clare remained observing them—not without their observing him.
“She is colouring up,” continued Tess heroically.
“Oh! Why it that?”
“Because you are looking at her.”
Self-sacrificing as her mood might be, Tess could not well go further and cry, “Marry one of them, if you really do want a dairywoman and not a lady; and don’t think of marrying me!” She followed Dairyman Crick, and had the mournful satisfaction of seeing that Clare remained behind.
From this day she forced herself to take pains to avoid him—never allowing herself, as formerly, to remain long in his company, even if their juxtaposition were purely accidental. She gave the other three every chance.