They came downstairs yawning next morning; but skimming and milking were proceeded with as usual, and they went indoors to breakfast. Dairyman Crick was discovered stamping about the house. He had received a letter, in which a customer had complained that the butter had a twang.
"And begad, so 't have!" said the dairyman, who held in his left hand a wooden slice on which a lump of butter was stuck. "Yes — taste for yourself!"
Several of them gathered round him; and Mr Clare tasted, Tess tasted, also the other indoor milkmaids, one or two of the milking-men, and last of all Mrs Crick, who came out from the waiting breakfast-table. There certainly was a twang.
The dairyman, who had thrown himself into abstraction to better realize the taste, and so divine the particular species of noxious weed to which it appertained, suddenly exclaimed —
"'Tis garlic! and I thought there wasn't a blade left in that mead!"
Then all the old hands remembered that a certain dry mead, into which a few of the cows had been admitted of late, had, in years gone by, spoilt the butter in the same way. The dairyman had not recognized the taste at that time, and thought the butter bewitched.
"We must overhaul that mead," he resumed; "this mustn't continny!"
All having armed themselves with old pointed knives, they went out together. As the inimical plant could only be present in very microscopic dimensions to have escaped ordinary observation, to find it seemed rather a hopeless attempt in the stretch of rich grass before them. However, they formed themselves into line, all assisting, owing to the importance of the search; the dairyman at the upper end with Mr Clare, who had volunteered to help; then Tess, Marian, Izz Huett, and Retty; then Bill Lewell, Jonathan, and the married dairywomen — Beck Knibbs, with her wooly black hair and rolling eyes; and flaxen Frances, consumptive from the winter damps of the water-meads — who lived in their respective cottages.
With eyes fixed upon the ground they crept slowly across a strip of the field, returning a little further down in such a manner that, when they should have finished, not a single inch of the pasture but would have fallen under the eye of some one of them. It was a most tedious business, not more than half a dozen shoots of garlic being discoverable in the whole field; yet such was the herb's pungency that probably one bite of it by one cow had been sufficient to season the whole dairy's produce for the day.
Differing one from another in natures and moods so greatly as they did, they yet formed, bending, a curiously uniform row — automatic, noiseless; and an alien observer passing down the neighbouring lane might well have been excused for massing them as "Hodge". As they crept along, stooping low to discern the plant, a soft yellow gleam was reflected from the buttercups into their shaded faces, giving them an elfish, moonlit aspect, though the sun was pouring upon their backs in all the strength of noon.
Angel Clare, who communistically stuck to his rule of taking part with the rest in everything, glanced up now and then. It was not, of course, by accident that he walked next to Tess.
"Well, how are you?" he murmured.
"Very well, thank you, sir," she replied demurely.
As they had been discussing a score of personal matters only half-an-hour before, the introductory style seemed a little superfluous. But they got no further in speech just then. They crept and crept, the hem of her petticoat just touching his gaiter, and his elbow sometimes brushing hers. At last the dairyman, who came next, could stand it no longer.
"Upon my soul and body, this here stooping do fairly make my back open and shut!" he exclaimed, straightening himself slowly with an excruciated look till quite upright. "And you, maidy Tess, you wasn't well a day or two ago — this will make your head ache finely! Don't do any more, if you feel fainty; leave the rest to finish it."
Dairyman Crick withdrew, and Tess dropped behind. Mr Clare also stepped out of line, and began privateering about for the weed. When she found him near her, her very tension at what she had heard the night before made her the first to speak.
"Don't they look pretty?" she said.
"Izzy Huett and Retty."
Tess had moodily decided that either of these maidens would make a good farmer's wife, and that she ought to recommend them, and obscure her own wretched charms.
"Pretty? Well, yes — they are pretty girls — fresh looking. I have often thought so."
"Though, poor dears, prettiness won't last long!"
"O no, unfortunately."
"They are excellent dairywomen."
"Yes: though not better than you."
"They skim better than I."
Clare remained observing them — not without their observing him.
"She is colouring up," continued Tess heroically.
"Oh! Why it that?"
"Because you are looking at her."
Self-sacrificing as her mood might be, Tess could not well go further and cry, "Marry one of them, if you really do want a dairywoman and not a lady; and don't think of marrying me!" She followed Dairyman Crick, and had the mournful satisfaction of seeing that Clare remained behind.
From this day she forced herself to take pains to avoid him — never allowing herself, as formerly, to remain long in his company, even if their juxtaposition were purely accidental. She gave the other three every chance.
Tess was woman enough to realize from their avowals to herself that Angel Clare had the honour of all the dairymaids in his keeping, and her perception of his care to avoid compromising the happiness of either in the least degree bred a tender respect in Tess for what she deemed, rightly or wrongly, the self-controlling sense of duty shown by him, a quality which she had never expected to find in one of the opposite sex, and in the absence of which more than one of the simple hearts who were his house-mates might have gone weeping on her pilgrimage.