The twain cantered along for some time without speech, Tess as she clung to him still panting in her triumph, yet in other respects dubious. She had perceived that the horse was not the spirited one he sometimes rose, and felt no alarm on that score, though her seat was precarious enough despite her tight hold of him. She begged him to slow the animal to a walk, which Alec accordingly did.
"Neatly done, was it not, dear Tess?" he said by and by.
"Yes!" said she. "I am sure I ought to be much obliged to you."
"And are you?"
She did not reply.
"Tess, why do you always dislike my kissing you?"
"I suppose — because I don't love you."
"You are quite sure?"
"I am angry with you sometimes!"
"Ah, I half feared as much." Nevertheless, Alec did not object to that confession. He knew that anything was better then frigidity. "Why haven't you told me when I have made you angry?"
"You know very well why. Because I cannot help myself here."
"I haven't offended you often by love-making?"
"You have sometimes."
"How many times?"
"You know as well as I — too many times."
"Every time I have tried?"
She was silent, and the horse ambled along for a considerable distance, till a faint luminous fog, which had hung in the hollows all the evening, became general and enveloped them. It seemed to hold the moonlight in suspension, rendering it more pervasive than in clear air. Whether on this account, or from absent-mindedness, or from sleepiness, she did not perceive that they had long ago passed the point at which the lane to Trantridge branched from the highway, and that her conductor had not taken the Trantridge track.
She was inexpressibly weary. She had risen at five o'clock every morning of that week, had been on foot the whole of each day, and on this evening had in addition walked the three miles to Chaseborough, waited three hours for her neighbours without eating or drinking, her impatience to start them preventing either; she had then walked a mile of the way home, and had undergone the excitement of the quarrel, till, with the slow progress of their steed, it was now nearly one o'clock. Only once, however, was she overcome by actual drowsiness. In that moment of oblivion her head sank gently against him.
D'Urberville stopped the horse, withdrew his feet from the stirrups, turned sideways on the saddle, and enclosed her waist with his arm to support her.
This immediately put her on the defensive, and with one of those sudden impulses of reprisal to which she was liable she gave him a little push from her. In his ticklish position he nearly lost his balance and only just avoided rolling over into the road, the horse, though a powerful one, being fortunately the quietest he rode.
"That is devilish unkind!" he said. "I mean no harm — only to keep you from falling."
She pondered suspiciously, till, thinking that this might after all be true, she relented, and said quite humbly, "I beg your pardon, sir."
"I won't pardon you unless you show some confidence in me. Good God!" he burst out, "what am I, to be repulsed so by a mere chit like you? For near three mortal months have you trifled with my feelings, eluded me, and snubbed me; and I won't stand it!"
"I'll leave you to-morrow, sir."
"No, you will not leave me to-morrow! Will you, I ask once more, show your belief in me by letting me clasp you with my arm? Come, between us two and nobody else, now. We know each other well; and you know that I love you, and think you the prettiest girl in the world, which you are. Mayn't I treat you as a lover?"
She drew a quick pettish breath of objection, writhing uneasily on her seat, looked far ahead, and murmured, "I don't know — I wish — how can I say yes or no when — "
He settled the matter by clasping his arm round her as he desired, and Tess expressed no further negative. Thus they sidled slowly onward till it struck her they had been advancing for an unconscionable time — far longer than was usually occupied by the short journey from Chaseborough, even at this walking pace, and that they were no longer on hard road, but in a mere trackway.
"Why, where be we?" she exclaimed.
"Passing by a wood."
"A wood — what wood? Surely we are quite out of the road?"
"A bit of The Chase — the oldest wood in England. It is a lovely night, and why should we not prolong our ride a little?"
"How could you be so treacherous!" said Tess, between archness and real dismay, and getting rid of his arm by pulling open his fingers one by one, though at the risk of slipping off herself. "Just when I've been putting such trust in you, and obliging you to please you, because I thought I had wronged you by that push! Please set me down, and let me walk home."
"You cannot walk home, darling, even if the air were clear. We are miles away from Trantridge, if I must tell you, and in this growing fog you might wander for hours among these trees."
"Never mind that," she coaxed. "Put me down, I beg you. I don't mind where it is; only let me get down, sir, please!"
"Very well, then, I will — on one condition. Having brought you here to this out-of-the-way place, I feel myself responsible for your safe-conduct home, whatever you may yourself feel about it. As to your getting to Trantridge without assistance, it is quite impossible; for, to tell the truth, dear, owing to this fog, which so disguises everything, I don't quite know where we are myself. Now, if you will promise to wait beside the horse while I walk through the bushes till I come to some road or house, and ascertain exactly our whereabouts, I'll deposit you here willingly. When I come back I'll give you full directions, and if you insist upon walking you may; or you may ride — at your pleasure."
She accepted these terms, and slid off on the near side, though not till he had stolen a cursory kiss. He sprang down on the other side.
"I suppose I must hold the horse?" said she.
"Oh no; it's not necessary," replied Alec, patting the panting creature. "He's had enough of it for to-night."
He turned the horse's head into the bushes, hitched him on to a bough, and made a sort of couch or nest for her in the deep mass of dead leaves.
"Now, you sit there," he said. "The leaves have not got damp as yet. Just give an eye to the horse — it will be quite sufficient."