Nobody looked at his or her companions. The eyes of all were on the soil as its turned surface was revealed by the fires. Hence as Tess stirred the clods and sang her foolish little songs with scarce now a hope that Clare would ever hear them, she did not for a long time notice the person who worked nearest to her — a man in a long smockfrock who, she found, was forking the same plot as herself, and whom she supposed her father had sent there to advance the work. She became more conscious of him when the direction of his digging brought him closer. Sometimes the smoke divided them; then it swerved, and the two were visible to each other but divided from all the rest.
Tess did not speak to her fellow-worker, nor did he speak to her. Nor did she think of him further than to recollect that he had not been there when it was broad daylight, and that she did not know him as any one of the Marlott labourers, which was no wonder, her absences having been so long and frequent of late years. By-and-by he dug so close to her that the fire-beams were reflected as distinctly from the steel prongs of his fork as from her own. On going up to the fire to throw a pitch of dead weeds upon it, she found that he did the same on the other side. The fire flared up, and she beheld the face of d'Urberville.
The unexpectedness of his presence, the grotesqueness of his appearance in a gathered smockfrock, such as was now worn only by the most old-fashioned of the labourers, had a ghastly comicality that chilled her as to its bearing. D'Urberville emitted a low, long laugh.
"If I were inclined to joke, I should say, How much this seems like Paradise!" he remarked whimsically, looking at her with an inclined head.
"What do you say?" she weakly asked.
"A jester might say this is just like Paradise. You are Eve, and I am the old Other One come to tempt you in the disguise of an inferior animal. I used to be quite up in that scene of Milton's when I was theological. Some of it goes —
"'Empress, the way is ready, and not long, Beyond a row of myrtles... ... If thou accept My conduct, I can bring thee thither soon.' 'Lead then,' said Eve.
"And so on. My dear Tess, I am only putting this to you as a thing that you might have supposed or said quite untruly, because you think so badly of me."
"I never said you were Satan, or thought it. I don't think of you in that way at all. My thoughts of you are quite cold, except when you affront me. What, did you come digging here entirely because of me?"
"Entirely. To see you; nothing more. The smockfrock, which I saw hanging for sale as I came along, was an afterthought, that I mightn't be noticed. I come to protest against your working like this."
"But I like doing it — it is for my father."
"Your engagement at the other place is ended?"
"Where are you going to next? To join your dear husband?"
She could not bear the humiliating reminder.
"O — I don't know!" she said bitterly. "I have no husband!"
"It is quite true — in the sense you mean. But you have a friend, and I have determined that you shall be comfortable in spite of yourself. When you get down to your house you will see what I have sent there for you."
"O, Alec, I wish you wouldn't give me anything at all! I cannot take it from you! I don't like — it is not right!"
"It IS right!" he cried lightly. "I am not going to see a woman whom I feel so tenderly for as I do for you in trouble without trying to help her."
"But I am very well off! I am only in trouble about — about — not about living at all!"
She turned, and desperately resumed her digging, tears dripping upon the fork-handle and upon the clods.
"About the children — your brothers and sisters," he resumed. "I've been thinking of them."
Tess's heart quivered — he was touching her in a weak place. He had divined her chief anxiety. Since returning home her soul had gone out to those children with an affection that was passionate.
"If your mother does not recover, somebody ought to do something for them; since your father will not be able to do much, I suppose?"
"He can with my assistance. He must!"
"And with mine."
"How damned foolish this is!" burst out d'Urberville. "Why, he thinks we are the same family; and will be quite satisfied!"
"He don't. I've undeceived him."
"The more fool you!"
D'Urberville in anger retreated from her to the hedge, where he pulled off the long smockfrock which had disguised him; and rolling it up and pushing it into the couch-fire, went away.
Tess could not get on with her digging after this; she felt restless; she wondered if he had gone back to her father's house; and taking the fork in her hand proceeded homewards.
Some twenty yards from the house she was met by one of her sisters.
"O, Tessy — what do you think! 'Liza-Lu is a-crying, and there's a lot of folk in the house, and mother is a good deal better, but they think father is dead!"
The child realized the grandeur of the news; but not as yet its sadness, and stood looking at Tess with round-eyed importance till, beholding the effect produced upon her, she said —
"What, Tess, shan't we talk to father never no more?"
"But father was only a little bit ill!" exclaimed Tess distractedly.
'Liza-Lu came up.
"He dropped down just now, and the doctor who was there for mother said there was no chance for him, because his heart was growed in."
Yes; the Durbeyfield couple had changed places; the dying one was out of danger, and the indisposed one was dead. The news meant even more than it sounded. Her father's life had a value apart from his personal achievements, or perhaps it would not have had much. It was the last of the three lives for whose duration the house and premises were held under a lease; and it had long been coveted by the tenant-farmer for his regular labourers, who were stinted in cottage accommodation. Moreover, "liviers" were disapproved of in villages almost as much as little freeholders, because of their independence of manner, and when a lease determined it was never renewed.
Thus the Durbeyfields, once d'Urbervilles, saw descending upon them the destiny which, no doubt, when they were among the Olympians of the county, they had caused to descend many a time, and severely enough, upon the heads of such landless ones as they themselves were now. So do flux and reflux — the rhythm of change — alternate and persist in everything under the sky.