<br/>The community of fowls to which Tess had been appointed
as supervisor, purveyor, nurse, surgeon, and friend
made its headquarters in an old thatched cottage
standing in an enclosure that had once been a garden,
but was now a trampled and sanded square. The house
was overrun with ivy, its chimney being enlarged by the
boughs of the parasite to the aspect of a ruined tower.
The lower rooms were entirely given over to the birds,
who walked about them with a proprietary air, as though
the place had been built by themselves, and not by
certain dusty copyholders who now lay east and west in
the churchyard. The descendants of these bygone owners
felt it almost as a slight to their family when the
house which had so much of their affection, had cost so
much of their forefathers' money, and had been in their
possession for several generations before the
d'Urbervilles came and built here, was indifferently
turned into a fowl-house by Mrs Stoke-d'Urberville as
soon as the property fell into hand according to law.
"'Twas good enough for Christians in grandfather's
time," they said.
<br/>The rooms wherein dozens of infants had wailed at their
nursing now resounded with the tapping of nascent
chicks. Distracted hens in coops occupied spots where
formerly stood chairs supporting sedate agriculturists.
The chimney-corner and once-blazing hearth was now
filled with inverted beehives, in which the hens laid
their eggs; while out of doors the plots that each
succeeding householder had carefully shaped with his
spade were torn by the cocks in wildest fashion.
<br/>The garden in which the cottage stood was surrounded by
a wall, and could only be entered through a door.
<br/>When Tess had occupied herself about an hour the next
morning in altering and improving the arrangements,
according to her skilled ideas as the daughter of a
professed poulterer, the door in the wall opened and a
servant in white cap and apron entered. She had come
from the manor-house.
<br/>"Mrs d'Urberville wants the fowls as usual," she said;
but perceiving that Tess did not quite understand, she
explained, "Mis'ess is a old lady, and blind."
<br/>"Blind!" said Tess.
<br/>Almost before her misgiving at the news could find time
to shape itself she took, under her companion's
direction, two of the most beautiful of the Hamburghs
in her arms, and followed the maid-servant, who had
likewise taken two, to the adjacent mansion, which,
though ornate and imposing, showed traces everywhere on
this side that some occupant of its chambers could bend
to the love of dumb creatures—feathers floating within
view of the front, and hen-coops standing on the grass.
<br/>In a sitting-room on the ground-floor, ensconced in an
armchair with her back to the light, was the owner and
mistress of the estate, a white-haired woman of not
more than sixty, or even less, wearing a large cap.
She had the mobile face frequent in those whose sight
has decayed by stages, has been laboriously striven
after, and reluctantly let go, rather than the stagnant
mien apparent in persons long sightless or born blind.
Tess walked up to this lady with her feathered
charges—one sitting on each arm.
<br/>"Ah, you are the young woman come to look after my
birds?" said Mrs d'Urberville, recognizing a new
footstep. "I hope you will be kind to them. My
bailiff tells me you are quite the proper person. Well,
where are they? Ah, this is Strut! But he is hardly
so lively to-day, is he? He is alarmed at being handled
by a stranger, I suppose. And Phena too—yes, they are
a little frightened—aren't you, dears? But they will
soon get used to you."
<br/>While the old lady had been speaking Tess and the other
maid, in obedience to her gestures, had placed the
fowls severally in her lap, and she had felt them over
from head to tail, examining their beaks, their combs,
the manes of the cocks, their wings, and their claws.
Her touch enabled her to recognize them in a moment,
and to discover if a single feather were crippled or
draggled. She handled their crops, and knew what they
had eaten, and if too little or too much; her face
enacting a vivid pantomime of the criticisms passing in
<br/>The birds that the two girls had brought in were duly
returned to the yard, and the process was repeated till
all the pet cocks and hens had been submitted to the
old woman—Hamburghs, Bantams, Cochins, Brahmas,
Dorkings, and such other sorts as were in fashion just
then—her perception of each visitor being seldom at
fault as she received the bird upon her knees.
<br/>It reminded Tess of a Confirmation, in which Mrs
d'Urberville was the bishop, the fowls the young people
presented, and herself and the maid-servant the parson
and curate of the parish bringing them up. At the end
of the ceremony Mrs d'Urberville abruptly asked Tess,
wrinkling and twitching her face into undulations,
"Can you whistle?"
<br/>"Yes, whistle tunes."
<br/>Tess could whistle like most other country-girls,
though the accomplishment was one which she did not
care to profess in genteel company. However, she
blandly admitted that such was the fact.
<br/>"Then you will have to practise it every day. I had a
lad who did it very well, but he has left. I want you
to whistle to my bullfinches; as I cannot see them, I
like to hear them, and we teach 'em airs that way.
Tell her where the cages are, Elizabeth. You must
begin to-morrow, or they will go back in their piping.
They have been neglected these several days."
<br/>"Mr d'Urberville whistled to 'em this morning, ma'am,"
<br/>The old lady's face creased into furrows of repugnance,
and she made no further reply.
<br/>Thus the reception of Tess by her fancied kinswoman
terminated, and the birds were taken back to their
quarters. The girl's surprise at Mrs d'Urberville's
manner was not great; for since seeing the size of the
house she had expected no more. But she was far from
being aware that the old lady had never heard a word of
the so-called kinship. She gathered that no great
affection flowed between the blind woman and her son.
But in that, too, she was mistaken. Mrs d'Urberville
was not the first mother compelled to love her
offspring resentfully, and to be bitterly fond.
<br/>In spite of the unpleasant initiation of the day
before, Tess inclined to the freedom and novelty of her
new position in the morning when the sun shone, now
that she was once installed there; and she was curious
to test her powers in the unexpected direction asked of
her, so as to ascertain her chance of retaining her
post. As soon as she was alone within the walled garden
she sat herself down on a coop, and seriously screwed
up her mouth for the long-neglected practice. She
found her former ability to have degenerated to the
production of a hollow rush of wind through the lips,
and no clear note at all.
<br/>She remained fruitlessly blowing and blowing, wondering
how she could have so grown out of the art which had
come by nature, till she became aware of a movement
among the ivy-boughs which cloaked the garden-wall no
less then the cottage. Looking that way she beheld a
form springing from the coping to the plot. It was
Alec d'Urberville, whom she had not set eyes on since
he had conducted her the day before to the door of the
gardener's cottage where she had lodgings.
<br/>"Upon my honour!" cried he, "there was never before
such a beautiful thing in Nature or Art as you look,
'Cousin' Tess ('Cousin' had a faint ring of mockery).
I have been watching you from over the wall—sitting
like <i>Im</i>-patience on a monument, and pouting up that
pretty red mouth to whistling shape, and whooing and
whooing, and privately swearing, and never being able
to produce a note. Why, you are quite cross because
you can't do it."
<br/>"I may be cross, but I didn't swear."
<br/>"Ah! I understand why you are trying—those bullies!
My mother wants you to carry on their musical
education. How selfish of her! As if attending to
these curst cocks and hens here were not enough work
for any girl. I would flatly refuse, if I were you."
<br/>"But she wants me particularly to do it, and to be
ready by to-morrow morning."
<br/>"Does she? Well then—I'll give you a lesson or two."
<br/>"Oh no, you won't!" said Tess, withdrawing towards the
<br/>"Nonsense; I don't want to touch you. See—I'll stand
on this side of the wire-netting, and you can keep on
the other; so you may feel quite safe. Now, look here;
you screw up your lips too harshly. There 'tis—so."
<br/>He suited the action to the word, and whistled a line
of "Take, O take those lips away." But the allusion
was lost upon Tess.
<br/>"Now try," said d'Urberville.
<br/>She attempted to look reserved; her face put on a
sculptural severity. But he persisted in his demand,
and at last, to get rid of him, she did put up her lips
as directed for producing a clear note; laughing
distressfully, however, and then blushing with vexation
that she had laughed.
<br/>He encouraged her with "Try again!"
<br/>Tess was quite serious, painfully serious by this time;
and she tried—ultimately and unexpectedly emitting a
real round sound. The momentary pleasure of success got
the better of her; her eyes enlarged, and she
involuntarily smiled in his face.
<br/>"That's it! Now I have started you—you'll go on
beautifully. There—I said I would not come near you;
and, in spite of such temptation as never before fell
to mortal man, I'll keep my word. … Tess, do you
think my mother a queer old soul?"
<br/>"I don't know much of her yet, sir."
<br/>"You'll find her so; she must be, to make you learn to
whistle to her bullfinches. I am rather out of her
books just now, but you will be quite in favour if you
treat her live-stock well. Good morning. If you meet
with any difficulties and want help here, don't go to
the bailiff, come to me."
<br/>It was in the economy of this <i>régime</i> that
Tess Durbeyfield had undertaken to fill a place. Her first
day's experiences were fairly typical of those which
followed through many succeeding days. A familiarity
with Alec d'Urberville's presence—which that young man
carefully cultivated in her by playful dialogue, and by
jestingly calling her his cousin when they were
alone—removed much of her original shyness of him,
without, however, implanting any feeling which could
engender shyness of a new and tenderer kind. But she
was more pliable under his hands than a mere
companionship would have made her, owing to her
unavoidable dependence upon his mother, and, through
that lady's comparative helplessness, upon him.
<br/>She soon found that whistling to the bullfinches in Mrs
d'Urberville's room was no such onerous business when
she had regained the art, for she had caught from her
musical mother numerous airs that suited those
songsters admirably. A far more satisfactory time than
when she practised in the garden was this whistling by
the cages each morning. Unrestrained by the young
man's presence she threw up her mouth, put her lips
near the bars, and piped away in easeful grace to the
<br/>Mrs d'Urberville slept in a large four-post bedstead
hung with heavy damask curtains, and the bullfinches
occupied the same apartment, where they flitted about
freely at certain hours, and made little white spots on
the furniture and upholstery. Once while Tess was at
the window where the cages were ranged, giving her
lesson as usual, she thought she heard a rustling
behind the bed. The old lady was not present, and
turning round the girl had an impression that the toes
of a pair of boots were visible below the fringe of the
curtains. Thereupon her whistling became so disjointed
that the listener, if such there were, must have
discovered her suspicion of his presence. She searched
the curtains every morning after that, but never found
anybody within them. Alec d'Urberville had evidently
thought better of his freak to terrify her by an ambush
of that kind.
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