"Ah — and be ye! Well, I am truly glad to hear it, sir. I've thought you mid do such a thing for some time. She's too good for a dairymaid — I said so the very first day I zid her — and a prize for any man; and what's more, a wonderful woman for a gentleman-farmer's wife; he won't be at the mercy of his baily wi' her at his side."
Somehow Tess disappeared. She had been even more struck with the look of the girls who followed Crick than abashed by Crick's blunt praise.
After supper, when she reached her bedroom, they were all present. A light was burning, and each damsel was sitting up whitely in her bed, awaiting Tess, the whole like a row of avenging ghosts.
But she saw in a few moments that there was no malice in their mood. They could scarcely feel as a loss what they had never expected to have. Their condition was objective, contemplative.
"He's going to marry her!" murmured Retty, never taking eyes off Tess. "How her face do show it!"
"You BE going to marry him?" asked Marian.
"Yes," said Tess.
They thought that this was evasiveness only.
"YES — going to MARRY him — a gentleman!" repeated Izz Huett.
And by a sort of fascination the three girls, one after another, crept out of their beds, and came and stood barefooted round Tess. Retty put her hands upon Tess's shoulders, as if to realize her friend's corporeality after such a miracle, and the other two laid their arms round her waist, all looking into her face.
"How it do seem! Almost more than I can think of!" said Izz Huett.
Marian kissed Tess. "Yes," she murmured as she withdrew her lips.
"Was that because of love for her, or because other lips have touched there by now?" continued Izz drily to Marian.
"I wasn't thinking o' that," said Marian simply. "I was on'y feeling all the strangeness o't — that she is to be his wife, and nobody else. I don't say nay to it, nor either of us, because we did not think of it — only loved him. Still, nobody else is to marry'n in the world — no fine lady, nobody in silks and satins; but she who do live like we."
"Are you sure you don't dislike me for it?" said Tess in a low voice.
They hung about her in their white nightgowns before replying, as if they considered their answer might lie in her look.
"I don't know — I don't know," murmured Retty Priddle. "I want to hate 'ee; but I cannot!"
"That's how I feel," echoed Izz and Marian. "I can't hate her. Somehow she hinders me!"
"He ought to marry one of you," murmured Tess.
"You are all better than I."
"We better than you?" said the girls in a low, slow whisper. "No, no, dear Tess!"
"You are!" she contradicted impetuously. And suddenly tearing away from their clinging arms she burst into a hysterical fit of tears, bowing herself on the chest of drawers and repeating incessantly, "O yes, yes, yes!"
Having once given way she could not stop her weeping.
"He ought to have had one of you!" she cried. "I think I ought to make him even now! You would be better for him than — I don't know what I'm saying! O! O!"
They went up to her and clasped her round, but still her sobs tore her.
"Get some water," said Marian, "She's upset by us, poor thing, poor thing!"
They gently led her back to the side of her bed, where they kissed her warmly.
"You are best for'n," said Marian. "More ladylike, and a better scholar than we, especially since he had taught 'ee so much. But even you ought to be proud. You BE proud, I'm sure!"
"Yes, I am," she said; "and I am ashamed at so breaking down."
When they were all in bed, and the light was out, Marian whispered across to her —
"You will think of us when you be his wife, Tess, and of how we told 'ee that we loved him, and how we tried not to hate you, and did not hate you, and could not hate you, because you were his choice, and we never hoped to be chose by him."
They were not aware that, at these words, salt, stinging tears trickled down upon Tess's pillow anew, and how she resolved, with a bursting heart, to tell all her history to Angel Clare, despite her mother's command — to let him for whom she lived and breathed despise her if he would, and her mother regard her as a fool, rather then preserve a silence which might be deemed a treachery to him, and which somehow seemed a wrong to these.