`I've got to go a-skimming,' she pleaded, `and I have on'y old Deb to help me to-day. Mrs Crick is gone to market with Mr Crick, and Retty is not well, and the others are gone out somewhere, and won't be home till milking.'

As they retreated to the milk-house Deborah Fyander appeared on the stairs.

`I have come back, Deborah,' said Mr Clare, upwards.'So I can help Tess with the skimming; and, as you are very tired, I am sure, you needn't come down till milking-time.'

Possibly the Talbothays milk was not very thoroughly skimmed that afternoon. Tess was in a dream wherein familiar objects appeared as having light and shade and position, but no particular outline. Every time she held the skimmer under the pump to cool it for the work her hand trembled, the ardour of his affection being so palpable that she seemed to flinch under it like a plant in too burning a sun.

Then he pressed her again to his side, and when she had done running her forefinger round the leads to cut off the cream-edge, he cleaned it in nature's way; for the unconstrained manners of Talbothays dairy came convenient now.

`I may as well say it now as later, dearest,' he resumed gently. `I wish to ask you something of a very practical nature, which I have been thinking of ever since that day last week in the meads. I shall soon want to marry, and, being a farmer, you see I shall require for my wife a woman who knows all about the management of farms. Will you be that woman, Tessy?'

He put it in that way that she might not think he had yielded to an impulse of which his head would disapprove.

She turned quite careworn. She had bowed to the inevitable result of proximity, the necessity of loving him; but she had not calculated upon this sudden corollary, which, indeed, Clare had put before her without quite meaning himself to do it so soon. With pain that was like the bitterness of dissolution she murmured the words of her indispensable and sworn answer as an honourable woman.

`O Mr Clare - I cannot be your wife - I cannot be!'

The sound of her own decision seemed to break Tess's very heart, and she bowed her face in her grief.

`But, Tess!' he said, amazed at her reply, and holding her still more greedily close. `Do you say no? Surely you love me?'

`O yes, yes! And I would rather be yours than anybody's in the world,' returned the sweet and honest voice of the distressed girl. `But I cannot marry you!'

`Tess,' he said, holding her at arm's length, `you are engaged to marry some one else!'

`No, no!'

`Then why do you refuse me?'

`I don't want to marry! I have not thought o'doing it. I cannot! I only want to love you.'

`But why?'

Driven to subterfuge, she stammered--

`Your father is a parson, and your mother wouldn' like you to marry such as me. She will want you to marry a lady.'

`Nonsense - I have spoken to them both. That was partly why I went home.'

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