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The chapter opens with a description of the "Vale of Blakemore or Blackmoor" (see the "Setting" section for more on why the valley has two names), where the village of Marlott is situated.
The narrator gives us a historical, as well as a geographical and topographical, description of the area. Apparently the valley used to be covered by an ancient forest, most of which has since been cleared for farming, but occasional bits of the ancient woods survive here and there.
The ancient customs associated with the forest still survive in the valley in some form or another. The May-Day dance survives in the form of the club-walking mentioned in the previous chapter.
The club-walkers are all women, because the custom is a holdover from the ancient festival to the earth goddess, which was traditionally celebrated by women. The group includes women of all ages, from teenagers to old women, but the majority of them are young.
The women are parading around the outskirts of the town as part of the celebration.
As they pass the Pure Drop Inn (a pub), one of the women points out Jack Durbeyfield riding home in a carriage to his daughter, Tess.
Tess is described for the first time: she's a very pretty girl, wearing white like the others, but with a red ribbon in her hair.
Jack Durbeyfield is reclining in the carriage, waving to anyone who happens to be watching him, chanting, "I've-got-a-great-family-vault-at-Kingsbere—and-knighted-fore-fathers-in-lead-coffins-there!" (2.15).
Tess is understandably embarrassed by her father's behavior, and tries to excuse it to her friends by saying that he must have gotten a ride home because he was tired.
Her friends laugh and say that he got a ride home because he was drunk (which he pretty obviously is).
Tess is hurt by their snide remarks, and they feel bad and leave her alone about it.
Jack Durbeyfield rides on, and no one sees anything more of him.
The women arrive at the open space where they dance at the end of the parade, but at first dance only with each other, since most of the local men are still working.
A few random passers-by gather around and think about joining in the dance.
Three of these are a group of brothers "of a superior class," who are on a walking tour of the valley (2.24).
They watch the women dancing, and ask a few of the other spectators what the festival is.
The older two brothers are ready to move on, but the youngest seems amused at the group of women dancing without male partners, and starts to enter the field.
His brothers ask him what he's doing—his name is "Angel."
Angel says he's going to join them for a moment, and suggests that his brothers do likewise.
They aren't interested—they want to keep going so that they'll make it to their next stop before dark, and one of the brothers particularly wants to leave time to read the next chapter of the book he brought with him: A Counterblast to Agnosticism. (Sounds exciting. We can't really blame Angel for preferring a dance with a huge group of pretty young women to listening to his brother read from A Counterblast to Agnosticism.)
Angel says he'll catch up with his brothers—they're named Felix and Cuthbert—after a quick dance.
They agree, and leave the spot.
Angel is quickly approached by one of the boldest of the young women—she tells him that the young men of the village haven't arrived yet, and that he would be welcome to pick and choose from among the women there until the village men arrive.
Angel is overwhelmed by the choices, and picks almost the first pretty girl he sees. It isn't Tess.
Other young men from the village arrive soon afterwards, and start dancing with other women, but Tess's feelings are hurt by the strange young man's neglect.
As Angel leaves to catch up with his brothers, he looks back and sees Tess standing a little apart from the rest of the group, looking sad. She looks so lovely and so reproachful, that he regrets not having danced with her or at least having asked her name.
But Angel can't help it now, and so moves on to catch up with his brothers.