"I hope I am not too heavy?" she said timidly.
"O no. You should lift Marian! Such a lump. You are like an undulating billow warmed by the sun. And all this fluff of muslin about you is the froth."
"It is very pretty — if I seem like that to you."
"Do you know that I have undergone three-quarters of this labour entirely for the sake of the fourth quarter?"
"I did not expect such an event to-day."
"Nor I... The water came up so sudden."
That the rise in the water was what she understood him to refer to, the state of breathing belied. Clare stood still and inclinced his face towards hers.
"O Tessy!" he exclaimed.
The girl's cheeks burned to the breeze, and she could not look into his eyes for her emotion. It reminded Angel that he was somewhat unfairly taking advantage of an accidental position; and he went no further with it. No definite words of love had crossed their lips as yet, and suspension at this point was desirable now. However, he walked slowly, to make the remainder of the distance as long as possible; but at last they came to the bend, and the rest of their progress was in full view of the other three. The dry land was reached, and he set her down.
Her friends were looking with round thoughtful eyes at her and him, and she could see that they had been talking of her. He hastily bade them farewell, and splashed back along the stretch of submerged road.
The four moved on together as before, till Marian broke the silence by saying —
"No — in all truth; we have no chance against her!" She looked joylessly at Tess.
"What do you mean?" asked the latter.
"He likes 'ee best — the very best! We could see it as he brought 'ee. He would have kissed 'ee, if you had encouraged him to do it, ever so little."
"No, no," said she.
The gaiety with which they had set out had somehow vanished; and yet there was no enmity or malice between them. They were generous young souls; they had been reared in the lonely country nooks where fatalism is a strong sentiment, and they did not blame her. Such supplanting was to be.
Tess's heart ached. There was no concealing from herself the fact that she loved Angel Clare, perhaps all the more passionately from knowing that the others had also lost their hearts to him. There is contagion in this sentiment, especially among women. And yet that same hungry nature had fought against this, but too feebly, and the natural result had followed.
"I will never stand in your way, nor in the way of either of you!" she declared to Retty that night in the bedroom (her tears running down). "I can't help this, my dear! I don't think marrying is in his mind at all; but if he were ever to ask me I should refuse him, as I should refuse any man."
"Oh! would you? Why?" said wondering Retty.
"It cannot be! But I will be plain. Putting myself quite on one side, I don't think he will choose either of you."
"I have never expected it — thought of it!" moaned Retty. "But O! I wish I was dead!"
The poor child, torn by a feeling which she hardly understood, turned to the other two girls who came upstairs just then.
"We be friends with her again," she said to them. "She thinks no more of his choosing her than we do."
So the reserve went off, and they were confiding and warm.
"I don't seem to care what I do now," said Marian, whose mood was turned to its lowest bass. "I was going to marry a dairyman at Stickleford, who's asked me twice; but — my soul — I would put an end to myself rather'n be his wife now! Why don't ye speak, Izz?"
"To confess, then," murmured Izz, "I made sure to-day that he was going to kiss me as he held me; and I lay still against his breast, hoping and hoping, and never moved at all. But he did not. I don't like biding here at Talbothays any longer! I shall go hwome."
The air of the sleeping-chamber seemed to palpitate with the hopeless passion of the girls. They writhed feverishly under the oppressiveness of an emotion thrust on them by cruel Nature's law — an emotion which they had neither expected nor desired. The incident of the day had fanned the flame that was burning the inside of their hearts out, and the torture was almost more than they could endure. The differences which distinguished them as individuals were abstracted by this passion, and each was but portion of one organism called sex. There was so much frankness and so little jealousy because there was no hope. Each one was a girl of fair common sense, and she did not delude herself with any vain conceits, or deny her love, or give herself airs, in the idea of outshining the others. The full recognition of the futility of their infatuation, from a social point of view; its purposeless beginning; its self-bounded outlook; its lack of everything to justify its existence in the eye of civilization (while lacking nothing in the eye of Nature); the one fact that it did exist, ecstasizing them to a killing joy — all this imparted to them a resignation, a dignity, which a practical and sordid expectation of winning him as a husband would have destroyed.
They tossed and turned on their little beds, and the cheese-wring dripped monotonously downstairs.
"B' you awake, Tess?" whispered one, half-an-hour later.
It was Izz Huett's voice.
Tess replied in the affirmative, whereupon also Retty and Marian suddenly flung the bedclothes off them, and sighed —
"So be we!"
"I wonder what she is like — the lady they say his family have looked out for him!"
"I wonder," said Izz.
"Some lady looked out for him?" gasped Tess, starting. "I have never heard o' that!"
"O yes — 'tis whispered; a young lady of his own rank, chosen by his family; a Doctor of Divinity's daughter near his father's parish of Emminster; he don't much care for her, they say. But he is sure to marry her."
They had heard so very little of this; yet it was enough to build up wretched dolorous dreams upon, there in the shade of the night. They pictured all the details of his being won round to consent, of the wedding preparations, of the bride's happiness, of her dress and veil, of her blissful home with him, when oblivion would have fallen upon themselves as far as he and their love were concerned. Thus they talked, and ached, and wept till sleep charmed their sorrow away.
After this disclosure Tess nourished no further foolish thought that there lurked any grave and deliberate import in Clare's attentions to her. It was a passing summer love of her face, for love's own temporary sake — nothing more. And the thorny crown of this sad conception was that she whom he really did prefer in a cursory way to the rest, she who knew herself to be more impassioned in nature, cleverer, more beautiful than they, was in the eyes of propriety far less worthy of him than the homelier ones whom he ignored.