"O, then I ought to have done it, to have done it last night! But I hadn't the courage. That's just like me!"
"The courage to do what?"
As she did not answer he took her by the hand.
"What were you thinking of doing?" he inquired.
"Of putting an end to myself."
She writhed under this inquisitorial manner of his. "Last night," she answered.
"Under your mistletoe."
"My good — ! How?" he asked sternly.
"I'll tell you, if you won't be angry with me!" she said, shrinking. "It was with the cord of my box. But I could not — do the last thing! I was afraid that it might cause a scandal to your name."
The unexpected quality of this confession, wrung from her, and not volunteered, shook him perceptibly. But he still held her, and, letting his glance fall from her face downwards, he said, "Now, listen to this. You must not dare to think of such a horrible thing! How could you! You will promise me as your husband to attempt that no more."
"I am ready to promise. I saw how wicked it was."
"Wicked! The idea was unworthy of you beyond description."
"But, Angel," she pleaded, enlarging her eyes in calm unconcern upon him, "it was thought of entirely on your account — to set you free without the scandal of the divorce that I thought you would have to get. I should never have dreamt of doing it on mine. However, to do it with my own hand is too good for me, after all. It is you, my ruined husband, who ought to strike the blow. I think I should love you more, if that were possible, if you could bring yourself to do it, since there's no other way of escape for 'ee. I feel I am so utterly worthless! So very greatly in the way!"
"Well, since you say no, I won't. I have no wish opposed to yours."
He knew this to be true enough. Since the desperation of the night her activities had dropped to zero, and there was no further rashness to be feared.
Tess tried to busy herself again over the breakfast-table with more or less success, and they sat down both on the same side, so that their glances did not meet. There was at first something awkward in hearing each other eat and drink, but this could not be escaped; moreover, the amount of eating done was small on both sides. Breakfast over, he rose, and telling her the hour at which he might be expected to dinner, went off to the miller's in a mechanical pursuance of the plan of studying that business, which had been his only practical reason for coming here.
When he was gone Tess stood at the window, and presently saw his form crossing the great stone bridge which conducted to the mill premises. He sank behind it, crossed the railway beyond, and disappeared. Then, without a sigh, she turned her attention to the room, and began clearing the table and setting it in order.
The charwoman soon came. Her presence was at first a strain upon Tess, but afterwards an alleviation. At half-past twelve she left her assistant alone in the kitchen, and, returning to the sitting-room, waited for the reappearance of Angel's form behind the bridge.
About one he showed himself. Her face flushed, although he was a quarter of a mile off. She ran to the kitchen to get the dinner served by the time he should enter. He went first to the room where they had washed their hands together the day before, and as he entered the sitting-room the dish-covers rose from the dishes as if by his own motion.
"How punctual!" he said.
"Yes. I saw you coming over the bridge," said she.
The meal was passed in commonplace talk of what he had been doing during the morning at the Abbey Mill, of the methods of bolting and the old-fashioned machinery, which he feared would not enlighten him greatly on modern improved methods, some of it seeming to have been in use ever since the days it ground for the monks in the adjoining conventual buildings — now a heap of ruins. He left the house again in the course of an hour, coming home at dusk, and occupying himself through the evening with his papers. She feared she was in the way and, when the old woman was gone, retired to the kitchen, where she made herself busy as well as she could for more than an hour.
Clare's shape appeared at the door. "You must not work like this," he said. "You are not my servant; you are my wife."
She raised her eyes, and brightened somewhat. "I may think myself that — indeed?" she murmured, in piteous raillery. "You mean in name! Well, I don't want to be anything more."
"You MAY think so, Tess! You are. What do you mean?"
"I don't know," she said hastily, with tears in her accents. "I thought I — because I am not respectable, I mean. I told you I thought I was not respectable enough long ago — and on that account I didn't want to marry you, only — only you urged me!"
She broke into sobs, and turned her back to him. It would almost have won round any man but Angel Clare. Within the remote depths of his constitution, so gentle and affectionate as he was in general, there lay hidden a hard logical deposit, like a vein of metal in a soft loam, which turned the edge of everything that attempted to traverse it. It had blocked his acceptance of the Church; it blocked his acceptance of Tess. Moreover, his affection itself was less fire than radiance, and, with regard to the other sex, when he ceased to believe he ceased to follow: contrasting in this with many impressionable natures, who remain sensuously infatuated with what they intellectually despise. He waited till her sobbing ceased.
"I wish half the women in England were as respectable as you," he said, in an ebullition of bitterness against womankind in general. "It isn't a question of respectability, but one of principle!"
He spoke such things as these and more of a kindred sort to her, being still swayed by the antipathetic wave which warps direct souls with such persistence when once their vision finds itself mocked by appearances. There was, it is true, underneath, a back current of sympathy through which a woman of the world might have conquered him. But Tess did not think of this; she took everything as her deserts, and hardly opened her mouth. The firmness of her devotion to him was indeed almost pitiful; quick-tempered as she naturally was, nothing that he could say made her unseemly; she sought not her own; was not provoked; thought no evil of his treatment of her. She might just now have been Apostolic Charity herself returned to a self-seeking modern world.