"Don't push! You can see as well as I," said Retty, the auburn-haired and youngest girl, without removing her eyes from the window.
"'Tis no use for you to be in love with him any more than me, Retty Priddle," said jolly-faced Marian, the eldest, slily. "His thoughts be of other cheeks than thine!"
Retty Priddle still looked, and the others looked again.
"There he is again!" cried Izz Huett, the pale girl with dark damp hair and keenly cut lips.
"You needn't say anything, Izz," answered Retty. "For I zid you kissing his shade."
"WHAT did you see her doing?" asked Marian.
"Why — he was standing over the whey-tub to let off the whey, and the shade of his face came upon the wall behind, close to Izz, who was standing there filling a vat. She put her mouth against the wall and kissed the shade of his mouth; I zid her, though he didn't."
"O Izz Huett!" said Marian.
A rosy spot came into the middle of Izz Huett's cheek.
"Well, there was no harm in it," she declared, with attempted coolness. "And if I be in love wi'en, so is Retty, too; and so be you, Marian, come to that."
Marian's full face could not blush past its chronic pinkness.
"I!" she said. "What a tale! Ah, there he is again! Dear eyes — dear face — dear Mr Clare!"
"There — you've owned it!"
"So have you — so have we all," said Marian, with the dry frankness of complete indifference to opinion. "It is silly to pretend otherwise amongst ourselves, though we need not own it to other folks. I would just marry 'n to-morrow!"
"So would I — and more," murmured Izz Huett.
"And I too," whispered the more timid Retty.
The listener grew warm.
"We can't all marry him," said Izz.
"We shan't, either of us; which is worse still," said the eldest. "There he is again!"
They all three blew him a silent kiss.
"Why?" asked Retty quickly.
"Because he likes Tess Durbeyfield best," said Marian, lowering her voice. "I have watched him every day, and have found it out."
There was a reflective silence.
"But she don't care anything for 'n?" at length breathed Retty.
"Well — I sometimes think that too."
"But how silly all this is!" said Izz Huett impatiently. "Of course he won't marry any one of us, or Tess either — a gentleman's son, who's going to be a great landowner and farmer abroad! More likely to ask us to come wi'en as farm-hands at so much a year!"
One sighed, and another sighed, and Marian's plump figure sighed biggest of all. Somebody in bed hard by sighed too. Tears came into the eyes of Retty Priddle, the pretty red-haired youngest — the last bud of the Paridelles, so important in the county annals. They watched silently a little longer, their three faces still close together as before, and the triple hues of their hair mingling. But the unconscious Mr Clare had gone indoors, and they saw him no more; and, the shades beginning to deepen, they crept into their beds. In a few minutes they heard him ascend the ladder to his own room. Marian was soon snoring, but Izz did not drop into forgetfulness for a long time. Retty Priddle cried herself to sleep.
The deeper-passioned Tess was very far from sleeping even then. This conversation was another of the bitter pills she had been obliged to swallow that day. Scarce the least feeling of jealousy arose in her breast. For that matter she knew herself to have the preference. Being more finely formed, better educated, and, though the youngest except Retty, more woman than either, she perceived that only the slightest ordinary care was necessary for holding her own in Angel Clare's heart against these her candid friends. But the grave question was, ought she to do this? There was, to be sure, hardly a ghost of a chance for either of them, in a serious sense; but there was, or had been, a chance of one or the other inspiring him with a passing fancy for her, and enjoying the pleasure of his attentions while he stayed here. Such unequal attachments had led to marriage; and she had heard from Mrs Crick that Mr Clare had one day asked, in a laughing way, what would be the use of his marrying a fine lady, and all the while ten thousand acres of Colonial pasture to feed, and cattle to rear, and corn to reap. A farm-woman would be the only sensible kind of wife for him. But whether Mr Clare had spoken seriously or not, why should she, who could never conscientiously allow any man to marry her now, and who had religiously determined that she never would be tempted to do so, draw off Mr Clare's attention from other women, for the brief happiness of sunning herself in his eyes while he remained at Talbothays?