She turned her head in the same passive way, as one might turn at the request of a sketcher or hairdresser, and he kissed the other side, his lips touching cheeks that were damp and smoothly chill as the skin of the mushrooms in the fields around.
"You don't give me your mouth and kiss me back. You never willingly do that — you'll never love me, I fear."
"I have said so, often. It is true. I have never really and truly loved you, and I think I never can." She added mournfully, "Perhaps, of all things, a lie on this thing would do the most good to me now; but I have honour enough left, little as 'tis, not to tell that lie. If I did love you, I may have the best o' causes for letting you know it. But I don't."
He emitted a laboured breath, as if the scene were getting rather oppressive to his heart, or to his conscience, or to his gentility.
"Well, you are absurdly melancholy, Tess. I have no reason for flattering you now, and I can say plainly that you need not be so sad. You can hold your own for beauty against any woman of these parts, gentle or simple; I say it to you as a practical man and well-wisher. If you are wise you will show it to the world more than you do before it fades... And yet, Tess, will you come back to me! Upon my soul, I don't like to let you go like this!"
"Never, never! I made up my mind as soon as I saw — what I ought to have seen sooner; and I won't come."
"Then good morning, my four months' cousin — good-bye!"
He leapt up lightly, arranged the reins, and was gone between the tall red-berried hedges.
Tess did not look after him, but slowly wound along the crooked lane. It was still early, and though the sun's lower limb was just free of the hill, his rays, ungenial and peering, addressed the eye rather than the touch as yet. There was not a human soul near. Sad October and her sadder self seemed the only two existences haunting that lane.
As she walked, however, some footsteps approached behind her, the footsteps of a man; and owing to the briskness of his advance he was close at her heels and had said "Good morning" before she had been long aware of his propinquity. He appeared to be an artisan of some sort, and carried a tin pot of red paint in his hand. He asked in a business-like manner if he should take her basket, which she permitted him to do, walking beside him.
"It is early to be astir this Sabbath morn!" he said cheerfully.
"Yes," said Tess.
"When most people are at rest from their week's work."
She also assented to this.
"Though I do more real work to-day than all the week besides."
"All the week I work for the glory of man, and on Sunday for the glory of God. That's more real than the other — hey? I have a little to do here at this stile." The man turned, as he spoke, to an opening at the roadside leading into a pasture. "If you'll wait a moment," he added, "I shall not be long."
As he had her basket she could not well do otherwise; and she waited, observing him. He set down her basket and the tin pot, and stirring the paint with the brush that was in it began painting large square letters on the middle board of the three composing the stile, placing a comma after each word, as if to give pause while that word was driven well home to the reader's heart —
THY, DAMNATION, SLUMBERETH, NOT. 2 Pet. ii. 3.
Against the peaceful landscape, the pale, decaying tints of the copses, the blue air of the horizon, and the lichened stile-boards, these staring vermilion words shone forth. They seemed to shout themselves out and make the atmosphere ring. Some people might have cried "Alas, poor Theology!" at the hideous defacement — the last grotesque phase of a creed which had served mankind well in its time. But the words entered Tess with accusatory horror. It was as if this man had known her recent history; yet he was a total stranger.
Having finished his text he picked up her basket, and she mechanically resumed her walk beside him.
"Do you believe what you paint?" she asked in low tones.
"Believe that tex? Do I believe in my own existence!"
"But," said she tremulously, "suppose your sin was not of your own seeking?"
He shook his head.
"I cannot split hairs on that burning query," he said. "I have walked hundreds of miles this past summer, painting these texes on every wall, gate, and stile the length and breadth of this district. I leave their application to the hearts of the people who read 'em."
"I think they are horrible," said Tess. "Crushing! Killing!"
"That's what they are meant to be!" he replied in a trade voice. "But you should read my hottest ones — them I kips for slums and seaports. They'd make ye wriggle! Not but what this is a very good tex for rural districts. ... Ah — there's a nice bit of blank wall up by that barn standing to waste. I must put one there — one that it will be good for dangerous young females like yerself to heed. Will ye wait, missy?"
"No," said she; and taking her basket Tess trudged on. A little way forward she turned her head. The old gray wall began to advertise a similar fiery lettering to the first, with a strange and unwonted mien, as if distressed at duties it had never before been called upon to perform. It was with a sudden flush that she read and realized what was to be the inscription he was now halfway through —
THOU, SHALT, NOT, COMMIT —
Her cheerful friend saw her looking, stopped his brush, and shouted —
"If you want to ask for edification on these things of moment, there's a very earnest good man going to preach a charity-sermon to-day in the parish you are going to — Mr Clare of Emminster. I'm not of his persuasion now, but he's a good man, and he'll expound as well as any parson I know. 'Twas he began the work in me."
But Tess did not answer; she throbbingly resumed her walk, her eyes fixed on the ground. "Pooh — I don't believe God said such things!" she murmured contemptuously when her flush had died away.
A plume of smoke soared up suddenly from her father's chimney, the sight of which made her heart ache. The aspect of the interior, when she reached it, made her heart ache more. Her mother, who had just come down stairs, turned to greet her from the fireplace, where she was kindling barked-oak twigs under the breakfast kettle. The young children were still above, as was also her father, it being Sunday morning, when he felt justified in lying an additional half-hour.