Having mounted beside her, Alec d'Urberville drove rapidly along the crest of the first hill, chatting compliments to Tess as they went, the cart with her box being left far behind. Rising still, an immense landscape stretched around them on every side; behind, the green valley of her birth, before, a gray country of which she knew nothing except from her first brief visit to Trantridge. Thus they reached the verge of an incline down which the road stretched in a long straight descent of nearly a mile.
Ever since the accident with her father's horse Tess Durbeyfield, courageous as she naturally was, had been exceedingly timid on wheels; the least irregularity of motion startled her. She began to get uneasy at a certain recklessness in her conductor's driving.
"You will go down slow, sir, I suppose?" she said with attempted unconcern.
D'Urberville looked round upon her, nipped his cigar with the tips of his large white centre-teeth, and allowed his lips to smile slowly of themselves.
"Why, Tess," he answered, after another whiff or two, "it isn't a brave bouncing girl like you who asks that? Why, I always go down at full gallop. There's nothing like it for raising your spirits."
"But perhaps you need not now?"
"Ah," he said, shaking his head, "there are two to be reckoned with. It is not me alone. Tib had to be considered, and she has a very queer temper."
"Why, this mare. I fancy she looked round at me in a very grim way just then. Didn't you notice it?"
"Don't try to frighten me, sir," said Tess stiffly.
"Well, I don't. If any living man can manage this horse I can: I won't say any living man can do it--but if such has the power, I am he."
"Why do you have such a horse?"
"Ah, well may you ask it! It was my fate, I suppose. Tib has killed one chap; and just after I bought her she nearly killed me. And then, take my word for it, I nearly killed her. But she's touchy still, very touchy; and one's life is hardly safe behind her sometimes."
They were just beginning to descend; and it was evident that the horse, whether of her own will or of his (the latter being the more likely), knew so well the reckless performance expected of her that she hardly required a hint from behind.
Down, down, they sped, the wheels humming like a top, the dog-cart rocking right and left, its axis acquiring a slightly oblique set in relation to the line of progress; the figure of the horse rising and falling in undulations before them. Sometimes a wheel was off the ground, it seemed, for many yards; sometimes a stone was sent spinning over the hedge, and flinty sparks from the horse's hoofs outshone the daylight. The aspect of the straight road enlarged with their advance, the two banks dividing like a splitting stick; one rushing past at each shoulder.
The wind blew through Tess's white muslin to her very skin, and her washed hair flew out behind. She was determined to show no open fear, but she clutched d'Urberville's rein-arm.
"Don't touch my arm! We shall be thrown out if you do! Hold on round my waist!"
She grasped his waist, and so they reached the bottom.
"Safe, thank God, in spite of your fooling!" said she, her face on fire.
"Tess--fie! that's temper!" said d'Urberville.
"Well, you need not let go your hold of me so thanklessly the moment you feel yourself our of danger."
She had not considered what she had been doing; whether he were man or woman, stick or stone, in her involuntary hold on him. Recovering her reserve she sat without replying, and thus they reached the summit of another declivity.
"Now then, again!" said d'Urberville.
"No, no!" said Tess. "Show more sense, do, please."
"But when people find themselves on one of the highest points in the county, they must get down again," he retorted.
He loosened rein, and away they went a second time. D'Urberville turned his face to her as they rocked, and said, in playful raillery: "Now then, put your arms round my waist again, as you did before, my Beauty."
"Never!" said Tess independently, holding on as well as she could without touching him.
"Let me put one little kiss on those holmberry lips, Tess, or even on that warmed cheek, and I'll stop--on my honour, I will!"
Tess, surprised beyond measure, slid farther back still on her seat, at which he urged the horse anew, and rocked her the more.
"Will nothing else do?" she cried at length, in desperation, her large eyes staring at him like those of a wild animal. This dressing her up so prettily by her mother had apparently been to lamentable purpose.
"Nothing, dear Tess," he replied.
"Oh, I don't know--very well; I don't mind!" she panted miserably.
He drew rein, and as they slowed he was on the point of imprinting the desired salute, when, as if hardly yet aware of her own modesty, she dodged aside. His arms being occupied with the reins there was left him no power to prevent her manoeuvre.
"Now, damn it--I'll break both our necks!" swore her capriciously passionate companion. "So you can go from your word like that, you young witch, can you?"
"Very well," said Tess, "I'll not more since you be so determined! But I--thought you would be kind to me, and protect me, as my kinsman!"
"Kinsman be hanged! Now!"
"But I don't want anybody to kiss me, sir!" she implored, a big tear beginning to roll down her face, and the corners of her mouth trembling in her attempts not to cry. "And I wouldn't ha' come if I had known!"
He was inexorable, and she sat still, and d'Urberville gave her the kiss of mastery. No sooner had he done so than she flushed with shame, took out her handkerchief, and wiped the spot on her cheek that had been touched by his lips. His ardour was nettled at the sight, for the act on her part had been unconsciously done.
"You are mighty sensitive for a cottage girl!" said the young man.
Tess made no reply to this remark, of which, indeed, she did not quite comprehend the drift, unheeding the snub she had administered by her instinctive rub upon her cheek. She had, in fact, undone the kiss, as far as such a thing was physically possible. With a dim sense that he was vexed she looked steadily ahead as they trotted on near Melbury Down and Wingreen, till she saw, to her consternation, that there was yet another descent to be undergone.
"You shall be made sorry for that!" he resumed, his injured tone still remaining, as he flourished the whip anew. "Unless, that is, you agree willingly to let me do it again, and no handkerchief."
She sighed. "Very well, sir!" she said. "Oh--let me get my hat!"
At the moment of speaking her hat had blown off into the road, their present speed on the upland being by no means slow. D'Urberville pulled up, and said he would get it for her, but Tess was down on the other side.
She turned back and picked up the article.
"You look prettier with it off, upon my soul, if that's possible," he said, contemplating her over the back of the vehicle. "Now then, up again! What's the matter?"
The hat was in place and tied, but Tess had not stepped forward.
"No, sir," she said, revealing the red and ivory of her mouth as her eye lit in defiant triumph; "not again, if I know it!"
"What--you won't get up beside me?"
"No; I shall walk."
"'Tis five or six miles yet to Trantridge."
"I don't care if 'tis dozens. Besides, the cart is behind."
"You artful hussy! Now, tell me--didn't you make that hat blow off on purpose? I'll swear you did!"
Her strategic silence confirmed his suspicion.
Then d'Urberville cursed and swore at her, and called her everything he could think of for the trick. Turning the horse suddenly he tried to drive back upon her, and so hem her in between the gig and the hedge. But he could not do this short of injuring her.
"You ought to be ashamed of yourself for using such wicked words!" cried Tess with spirit, from the top of the hedge into which she had scrambled. "I don't like
'ee at all! I hate and detest you! I'll go back to mother, I will!"
D'Urberville's bad temper cleared up at sight of hers; and he laughed heartily.
"Well, I like you all the better," he said. "Come, let there be peace. I'll never do it any more against your will. My life upon it now!"
Still Tess could not be induced to remount. She did not, however, object to his keeping his gig alongside her; and in this manner, at a slow pace, they advanced towards the village of Trantridge. From time to time d'Urberville exhibited a sort of fierce distress at the sight of the tramping he had driven her to undertake by his misdemeanour. She might in truth have safely trusted him now; but he had forfeited her confidence for the time, and she kept on the ground progressing thoughtfully, as if wondering whether it would be wiser to return home. Her resolve, however, had been taken, and it seemed vacillating even to childishness to abandon it now, unless for graver reasons. How could she face her parents, get back her box, and disconcert the whole scheme for the rehabilitation of her family on such sentimental grounds?
A few minutes later the chimneys of The Slopes appeared in view, and in a snug nook to the right the poultry-farm and cottage of Tess' destination.Next