In the bright, grassy Midlands of England rises the slightly fictional county of Wesson — a dark ink spot of tragedy among the happily blank pages that surround it. The air is heavier there, oppressive with the sense of eternal sadness and inescapable gloom. The sun does not shine on Wesson, for it has been banned by municipal decree. Neither flowers nor any other living things will bloom there, and the plowmen who homeward plod their weary way raise only Druidic stones from their cursed ash-gray fields. These stones their bony wives bake into a rough black bread very good for the soul but very bad for the teeth. Even this hard fare is thought too kingly by some of the sterner natives, who would rather suck an ice cube than eat a pagan meal. The inhabitants of Wesson know it is no use. They have given up.
Birds will not fly over the county, and the Wesson birds themselves don’t fly at all, remaining stoically perched in the bare trees that blight the countryside. Only when pierced by a sudden, ineluctable sorrow will they cry out, and then only with a mournful death-shriek as they plummet heartbroken to the ground. It was just such a luckless fowl that fell upon the brow of Tsk Durbeyfield where she sat weeping beneath a petrified oak. Though partly concussed and no child of fortune herself, Tsk took the rook in her arms and crooned a pitiful prayer into its dead eyes.
But the bird was not yet dead. With amazing alacrity it rallied to her tune and in its dying frenzy fastened its beak on her nose. For the world is as cruel as its maker, and He cares not a fig if a crow should peck a girl’s face off — even so beautiful a one as Tsk.
Without quite knowing why, she was ashamed. She had not sinned, but she was guilty. After all, there was a dead bird hanging from her nose, and that sort of thing simply was not done in Wesson — at least not in polite society. Like a woodland creature, Tsk knew instinctively that she was the living antithesis of Victorian hypocrisy and repression, yet she also sensed dimly, like the House of Lords, that through a succession of historically inevitable degradations her bucolic existence was fated to end in unearned suffering. And it occurred to her what a smashing novel it all would make, if only Sidney Sheldon had published in the 19th century, or Thomas Hardy in the 21st.
Then she thought of her family — of her father, Mr. Durbeyfield, known somewhat enigmatically as “Sir Speedy;” of her mother, known even more enigmatically as “Mrs. Durbeyfield;” and of her four younger sisters, Liza Lu, Little Lulu, Lockjaw and Old Black Joe. How could she face them now? She laughed bitterly when she recalled their despicable poverty. Why, they were so poor they could not even afford to give her a middle name, and she had to use her first name twice: Tsk Tsk. Was it any wonder she had fallen so far from grace? With girlish simplicity she reflected on the combination of socioeconomic factors that had run her like a rabbit into the briar bush of morality. It was all so confusing! Perhaps Lucifer Jones could help her unravel it. Dear Lucifer — so good, so strong…and so deathly dull. She covered her face with her burlap shawl and went to him.
“Tsk!” he exclaimed, “how good to see you at the vernal equinox. Isn’t it grand? I’ve developed a new method of corn blight control. Shall I tell you about it?” He did, and she fell asleep instantly. As he gazed at her veiled charms he felt a reckless impulse to make a new type of feed sack out of her shawl. But when he pulled the coarse cloth back from her face he recoiled in disgust.
“You — you aren’t the woman I loved,” he stammered.
“Then who am I?” Tsk replied huskily, like an ear of corn.
“Another woman in her shape, with a feathered carcass attached to her proboscis.” Though only a simple millionaire’s son, he knew his Latin, and could conjugate dead verbs in a way that melted a girl’s heart. Tsk wept anew as Lucifer strode briskly away from her.
“Where are you going?” she cried.
“To discover some new sort of threshing device made out of human teeth — but also to find a girl who doesn’t consort with dead specimens of any of various large glossy black oscine birds of the family Covidae and especially the genus Corvus. Farewell!”
Tsk, wounded to her soul, took comfort in the knowledge that she was not merely a backward Durbeyfield but an atavistic d’Urberville, one of a long degenerate line of anemic aristocrats whose skeletons rotted in decrepit Wesson tombs. How soothing this secret was! For when all was said and done the d’Urbervilles were only Durbeyfields, and the Durbeyfields only d’Urbervilles, and in the eyes of God neither mattered more than a dead crow.