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11

 

It was July and very hot The atmosphere of the flat valley hung like a drug over the dairy people the cows and the trees It was Sunday morning after milking Tess and the other three girls dressed quickly to go to Mellstock Churchwhich was three or four miles away from Talbothays Heavy thunderstorms had poured down the day before but today the sun shone brightly and the air was warm and clearWhen the girls reached the lowest part of the road to Mellstock they found it was flooded In working clothes and boots they would have walked through but they were wearing Sunday white stockings and thin shoes which they did not want to ruin The church bell was calling still a mile away

Suddenly they saw Angel Clare approaching He had seen them from far away and had come to help them one of them in particular

I'll carry you through the water all of you,’he offeredAll four blushed as if they had one heart

Now Marian put your arms round my shoulders Hold on!’ and Angel walked off with her in his arms Next was lzz HuettHer lips were dry with emotion Angel returned for Retty While he was picking her up he glanced at Tess He could not have said more plainly,‘ It will soon be you and I.’There was an understanding between them

It was now Tess's turn He picked her up She was embarrassed to discover her excitement at his nearness

Three plain girls to get one beauty,’he whispered

They are better women than I,’ she said bravely

Not to me,’ said Angel She blushed There was silenceClare stood still and bent his face to hers

Oh Tessy!’he said Her cheeks were pink and she could not look into his eyes But he respected her modesty and did nothing more He walked slowly however to make the journey as long as possible and put her down on dry land Her friends were looking with round thoughtful eyes at themHe said goodbye and went back by the road

The four walked on together Marian broke the silence by saying,‘No we have no chance against her!’She looked joylessly at Tess

What do you mean?’asked Tess

He likes you best the very bestWe saw as he brought you over He'd have kissed you if you had encouraged him only a little.’

They were no longer cheerful but they were not bitterThey were generous country girls who accept that such things happenTess's heart achedShe knew that she loved Angel Clare perhaps all the more passionately because the others also loved himAnd yet that same hungry heart of hers pitied her friends

I will never stand in your way!’ she cried to them that evening in the bedroom.‘I don't think he's thinking of marrying but even if he asked me I'd refuse him as I'd refuse any man.’

Oh why?’they asked

I cannot marry But I don't think he will choose any of you

So the girls remained friends They all shared each other's secret The air in their bedroom was full of their hopeless passion There was a flame burning the inside of their hearts out But because they had no hope they were not jealous of each otherThey had even heard that Angel's family were planning for him to marry a neighbour's daughter Tess no longer attached any importance to Clare's interest in herIt was a passing summer attraction nothing more

The heat grew steadily greater In this stormy atmosphere even a passing attraction would deepen into love Everything in nature was ready for loveClare became gradually more passionately in love with the soft and silent Tess The fields were dry Waggons threw up clouds of dust on the road Cows jumped over gates chased by flies Dairyman Crick's sleeves were rolled up from Monday to Saturday and the milkers milked in the fields for coolness

On one of these afternoons Tess and Angel were milking near each other Tess used to rest her head on the cow's bodyher eyes fixed on a distant field The sun shone on the beautiful lines of the face She did not know that Clare had followed her round and sat watching her How very lovable her face was to him He had never seen such beautiful lips and teeth like roses filled with snow

Suddenly Clare jumped up leaving his bucket to be kicked over by the cow went quickly towards her and kneeling down beside her took her in his arms Tess let herself relax in his arms in a moment of joyful surprise He was on the point of kissing that tempting mouth but stopped himself

Forgive me Tess dear!’he whispered.‘I ought to have askedI love you Tess really!’

Tess tried to free herself and her eyes began to fill with tears

Why are you crying my darling?’he asked

Oh I don't know!’ she murmured trying to pull away

Well I've shown my feeling at last Tess,’he said with a curious sigh showing that his heart had overcome his reason.‘I do love you dearly and truly But I shall go no further nowI have surprised you.’

She freed herself and they went on milking Nobody had noticed and when Dairyman Crick came round there was no sign to show that there was any connection between them Yet something had happened which was to change their whole world As a practical man the dairyman might laugh at lovebut love has a habit of changing people's livesIt is a force to be respected

 


 

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