Mr. Dalmaine first turned his attention to politics at the time when the question of popular education was to the front in British politics. It was an excellent opportunity for would-be legislators conscious of rhetorical gifts and only waiting for some safe, simple subject whereon to exercise them. Both safe and simple was the topic which all and sundry were then called upon to discuss; it was impossible not to have views on education (have we not all been educated?), and delightfully easy to support them by prophecy. Never had the vaticinating style of oratory a greater vogue. Never was a richer occasion for the utterance of wisdom such as recommends itself to the British public.
Mr. Dalmaine understood the tastes and habits of that public as well as most men of his standing. After one abortive attempt to enter Parliament, he gained his seat for Vauxhall at the election of 1874, and from the day of his success he steadily applied himself to the political profession. He was then two-and-thirty; for twelve years he had been actively engaged in commerce and now held the position of senior partner in a firm owning several factories in Lambeth. Such a training was valuable; politics he viewed as business on a larger scale, and business, the larger its scale the better, was his one enthusiasm. His education had not been liberal; he saw that that made no difference, and wisely pursued the bent of his positive mind where another man might have wasted his time in the attempt to gain culture. He saw that his was the age of the practical. Let who would be an idealist, the practical man in the end got all that was worth having.
He worked. You might have seen him, for instance, in his study one Sunday morning in the January which the story has now reached; a glance at him showed that he was no idler in fields of art or erudition; blue-books were heaped about him, hooks bound in law calf lay open near his hand, newspapers monopolised one table. He was interested in all that concerns the industrial population of Great Britain; he was making that subject his speciality; he meant to link his name with factory Acts, with education Acts, with Acts for the better housing of the work-folk, with what not of the kind. And the single working man for whom he veritably cared one jot was Mr. James Dalmaine.
He was rather a good-looking fellow, a well-built, sound, red-bearded Englishman. His ears were not quite so close against his head as they should be; his lips might have had a more urbane expression; his hand might have been a trifle less weighty; but when he stood up with his back to the fire and looked musingly along the cornice of the room, one felt that his appearance on a platform would conciliate those right-thinking electors who desire that Parliament should represent the comely, beef-fed British breed. He was fairly well-to-do, though some held that he had speculated a little rashly of late; he felt very strongly, however, that his pedestal must be yet more solid before he could claim the confidence of his countrymen with the completeness that he desired. Of late he had given thought to a particular scheme, and not at all a disagreeable one, for enhancing his social, and therefore political, credit. He was thinking of her - the scheme, I would say - at present.
These chambers of his were in Westminster; they were spacious, convenient; he had received deputations from his constituents here. Lambeth was only just over the water; he liked to be near, for it was one of his hobbies, one of the very few that he allowed himself, to keep thoroughly cognisant of the affairs of his borough - which, as you are aware, includes the district of Lambeth - even of its petty affairs. Some day, he said to himself, he would in this way overlook Great Britain - would have her statistics at his finger-ends, would change here, confirm there, guide everywhere. In the meantime he satisfied himself with this section. He knew what was going on in workmen's clubs, in places of amusement, in the market streets. There is a pleasure in surveying from a height the doing and driving of ordinary mortals; a member for Vauxhall studying his borough in this spirit naturally comes to feel himself a sort of Grand Duke.
It was one o'clock. There came a knock at the door, followed by the appearance of a middle-aged man who silently proclaimed himself a secretary. This was Mr. Tasker; he had served Mr. Dalmaine thus for three years, prior to which he had been employed as a clerk at the works in Lambeth. Mr. Dalmaine first had his attention drawn to Tasker eight or nine years before, by an instance of singular shrewdness in the latter's discharge of his duties. From that day he kept his eye on him - took Opportunities of advancing him. Tasker was born with a love of politics and with a genius for detail; Mr. Dalmaine discovered all this, and, when the due season came, raised him to the dignity of his private scribe. Tasker regarded his employer as his earthly Providence, was devoted to him, served him admirably. It was the one instance of Mr. Dalmaine's having interested himself in an individual; he had no thought of anything but his own profit in doing so, but none the less he had made a mortal happy. You observe the beneficence that lies in practicality.
Before going to luncheon on a Sunday it was Mr. Dalmaine's practice to talk of things in general with his secretary. To-day, among other questions, he asked, with a meaning smile:
'What of young Egremont's lectures? Has he recommenced?'
'The first of the new course is to-night,' replied Mr. Tasker, who sat bending a paper-cutter over his leg. Mr. Dalmaine, knowing his secretary, encouraged him to be on easy terms. In truth, he had a liking for Tasker. Partly it reciprocated the other's feeling, no doubt; and then one generally looks with indulgence on a man whom one has discovered and developed.
'Does he go on with his literature?'
'No. The title is, "Thoughts for the Present."'
Mr. Dalmaine leaned back and laughed. It was a hearty laugh.
'I foresaw it, I foresaw it! And how many hearers has he?'
'To be sure.'
'But there is something more. Mr. Egremont is going to present Lambeth with a free public library. He has taken a building.'
'A fact? How do you know that, Tasker?'
'I heard it at the club last night. He has informed the members of his class.'
'Ha! He is really going to bleed himself to prove his sincerity?'
They discussed the subject a little longer. Then Mr. Dalmaine dictated a letter or two that he wished to have off his mind, and after that bade Tasker good-day.
At half-past four in the afternoon he drove up to a house at Lancaster Gate, where he had recently been a not infrequent visitor. The servant preceded him with becoming stateliness to the drawing-room, and announced his name in the hearing of three ladies, who were pleasantly chatting in the aroma of tea. The eldest of them was Mrs. Tyrrell; her companions were Miss Tyrrell and a young married lady paying a call.
Mrs. Tyrrell was one of those excellently preserved matrons who testify to the wholesome placidity of woman's life in wealthy English homes. Her existence had taken for granted the perfection of the universe; probably she had never thought of a problem which did not solve itself for the pleasant trouble of stating it in refined terms, and certainly it had never occurred to her that social propriety was distinguishable from the Absolute Good. She was not a dull woman, and the opposite of an unfeeling one, but her wits and her heart had both been so subdued to the social code, that it was very difficult for her to entertain seriously any mode of thought or action for which she could not recall a respectable precedent. By nature she was indulgent, of mild disposition, of sunny intelligence; so endowed, circumstances had bidden her regard it as the end of her being to respect conventions, to check her native impulse if ever it went counter to the opinion of Society, to use her intellect for the sole purpose of discovering how far it was permitted to be used. And she was a happy woman, had always been a happy woman. She had known a little trouble in relation to her favourite sister's marriage with Mr. Newthorpe, for she foresaw that it could not turn out very well, and she had been obliged to censure her sister for excessive devotion to the pleasures of Society; it grieved her, on the other hand, to think of her poor niece being brought up in a way so utterly opposed to all the traditions. But these were only little ripples on the smooth flowing surface. You knew that she would never be smitten down with a great sorrow. She was of those whom Fate must needs respect, so gracefully and sweetly do they accept happiness as their right.
Mr. Dalmaine joined these ladies with the manner of the sturdy Briton who would make himself agreeable yet dreads the petit maître. His voice would have been better if a little more subdued; he seated himself with perhaps rather more of ease than of grace; but on the whole Society would have let him pass muster as a well-bred man.
'You are interested in all that concerns your constituency, Mr. Dalmaine,' said Mrs. Tyrrell; 'we were speaking of Mr. Egremont's plan of founding a library in Lambeth. You have heard of it?'
'Do you think it will be a good thing?'
'I am very doubtful. One doesn't like to speak unkindly of such admirable intentions, but I really think that in this he is working on a wrong principle. I so strongly object to giving anything when it's in the power of people to win it for themselves with a little wholesome exertion. Now, there's the Free Library Act; if the people of Lambeth really want a library, let them tax themselves and adopt the statutory scheme. Sincerely, I believe that Mr. Egremont will do more harm than good. We must avoid anything that tends to pauperise the working classes.'
'How amusing!' exclaimed Paula. 'It's almost word for word what mamma's just been saying.'
Paula was dressed in the prettiest of tea-gowns; she looked the most exquisite of conservatory flowers. Her smile to Mr. Dalmaine was very gracious.
'That really is how I felt,' said Mrs. Tyrrell. 'But Mr. Egremont will never be persuaded of that. He is so wholehearted in his desire to help these poor people, yet, I'm afraid, so very, very unpractical.'
The young married lady observed:
'Oh, no one ought ever to interfere with philanthropy unless they have a very practical scheme. Canon Brougham was so emphatic on that point this morning. So much harm may be done, when we mean everything for the best.'
'Yes, I feel that very strongly,' said Dalmaine, his masculine accent more masculine than ever after the plaintive piping. 'I even fear that Mr. Egremont is doing wrong in making his lectures free. We may be sure they are well worth paying to hear, and it's an axiom in all dealing with the working class that they will never value anything that they don't pay for.'
'Oh, but Mr. Dalmaine,' protested Paula, 'you couldn't ask Mr. Egremont to take money at the door!'
'It sounds shocking, Miss Tyrrell, but if Mr. Egremont stands before them as a teacher, he ought to charge for his lessons. I assure you they would put a far higher value on his lectures. I grieve to hear that his class has fallen off. I could have foreseen that. The basis is not sound. To put it in plain, even coarse, language, all social reform must be undertaken on strictly commercial principles.'
'How I should like to hear you say that to Mr. Egremont!' remarked Paula. 'Oh, his face!'
'Mr. Egremont is an idealist,' said Mrs. Tyrrell, smiling.
'Surely the very last kind of person to attempt social reform!' exclaimed the young married lady.
The conversation drew off into other channels. Mr. Dalmaine was supplied with the clearest opinions on every topic, and he had a way of delivering them which was most effective with persons of Mrs. Tyrrell's composition. In everything he affected sobriety. If he had to express a severe judgment, it was done with gentlemanly regret. If he commended anything, he did so with a judicial air. In fact, it would not have been easy to imagine Mr. Dalmaine speaking with an outburst of natural fervour on any topic whatsoever. His view was the view of common sense, and he enunciated the barrenest convictions in a tone which would have suited profound originality.
A week later there was a dinner party at the Tyrrells, and Egremont was among the bidden. He had persisted in his tendency to hold aloof from general society, in spite of many warnings from Mrs. Ormonde, but he could not, short of ingratitude, wholly absent himself from his friends at Lancaster Gate. Mrs. Tyrrell was no exception to the rule in her attitude to Egremont; as did all matronly ladies, she held him in very warm liking, and sincerely hoped that a young man so admirably fitted for the refinements of social life would in time get rid of his extravagant idealism. A little of that was graceful; Society was beginning to view it with favour when confined within the proper bounds; but to carry it into act, and waste one's life in wholly unpractical - nay, in positively harmful - enterprise was a sad thing. She had reasoned with him, but he showed himself so perverted in his sense of the fitness of things that the task had to be abandoned as hopeless. And yet the good lady liked him. She had hoped, and not so long ago, that he might some day desire to stand in a nearer relation to her than that of a friend, but herein again she felt that her wish was growing futile. Paula indulged in hints with reference to her cousin Annabel, and Mrs. Tyrrell began to fear that the strangely educated girl might be the cause of Walter's extreme aberrations.
Egremont arrived early on the evening of the dinner. Only one guest had preceded him. With Mrs. Tyrrell and Paula were Mr. Tyrrell and the son of the house, Mr. John, the Jack Tyrrell of sundry convivial clubs in town. Mr. Tyrrell senior was a high-coloured jovial gentleman of three score, great in finance, practical to the backbone, yet with wit and tact which put him at ease with all manner of men, even with social reformers. These latter amused him vastly; he failed to see that the world needed any reforming whatever, at all events beyond that which is constitutionally provided for in the proceedings of the British Parliament. He had great wealth; he fared sumptuously every day; things shone to him in a rosy after-dinner light. Not a gross or a selfish man, for he was as good-natured as he was contented, and gave very freely of his substance; it was simply his part in the world to enjoy the product of other men's labour and to set an example of glorious self-satisfaction. Egremont, in certain moods, had tried to despise Mr. Tyrrell, but he never quite succeeded. Nor indeed was the man contemptible. Had you told him with frank conviction that you deemed him a poor sort of phenomenon, he would have shaken the ceiling with laughter and have admired you for your plain-speaking. For there was a large and generous vigour about him, and adverse criticism could only heighten his satisfaction in his own stability.
Something of the cold dignity in which she had taken refuge at Ullswater was still to be remarked in Paula's manner as she received Egremont. She held her charming head erect, and let her eyelids droop a little, and the few words which she addressed to him were rather absently spoken. With others, as they arrived, she was sportively intimate. Her bearing had gained a little in maturity during the past half year, but it was still with a blending of naïveté and capricious affectation that she wrought her spell. Her dress was a miracle, and inseparably a part of her; it was impossible to picture her in any serious situation, so entirely was she a child of luxury and frivolous concern. Exquisite as an artistic product of Society, she affected the imagination not so much by her personal charm as through the perfume of luxury which breathed about her. Egremont, with his radical tendencies of thought, found himself marvelling as he regarded her; what a life was hers! Compare it with that of some little work-girl in Lambeth, such as he saw in the street - what spaces between those two worlds! Was it possible that this dainty creation, this thing of material omnipotence, would suffer decay of her sweetness and in the end die? The reason took her side and revolted against law; it would be an outrage if time or mischance laid hold upon her.
Yet there was something in Paula which he did not recognise. Since she could formulate desires, few had found impression on her lips which were not at once gratified; an exception caused her at first rather astonishment than impatience. Such astonishment fell upon her when she understood that Egremont's coming to Ullswater was not on her account. In truth, she wished it had been, and from that moment the fates were kind enough to notice Paula's poor little existence, and bid her remember she was mortal. She took the admonition ill, and certainly it was impertinent from her point of view. She had slight philosophy, but out of that disappointment Paula by degrees drew an understanding that she had had a glimpse of a strange world, that something of moment had been at stake.
Egremont, standing in the rear of a chatting group, had all but dreamed himself into oblivion of the present when he heard loud announcement of 'Mr. Dalmaine.' It was some time since he had met the Member for Vauxhall. Looking upon the politician's well-knit frame, his well-coloured face with its expression of shrewd earnestness, he for a moment seemed to himself to shrink into insignificance. After sitting opposite Dalmaine for an hour at the dinner-table, he was able to regard the man again in what he deemed a true light. But the impression made upon one by an object suddenly presented when the thought is busy with far other things will as a rule embody much essential truth. As a force, Egremont would not have weighed in the scale against Dalmaine. Putting himself in conscious opposition to such a man, he had but his due in a sense of nullity.
Mr. Tyrrell was kind to him in the assignment of a partner. A pretty, gentle, receptive maiden, anxious to show interest in things of the mind - with such a one Walter was at his best, because his simplest and happiest. He put away thought of Lambeth - which in truth was beginning to trouble his mind like a fixed idea - and talked much as he would have done a couple of years ago, with bright intelligence, with natural enjoyment of the hour. It was greatly his charm in such conversation that had made him a favourite with pleasant people of the world. In withdrawing himself from the sphere of these amenities he was opposing the free growth of his character, which in consequence suffered. He was cognisant of that; he knew that he was more himself to-night than he had been for some months. But the fixed idea waited in the background.
When the ladies were gone, he saw Dalmaine rise and come round the table towards him.
'I'm glad to see you again,' Dalmaine began, depositing his wine-glass and refilling it. 'Pray tell me something about your lectures. You have resumed since Christmas, I think?'
Egremont had no mind to speak of these things. It cost him an effort to find an answer.
'Yes, I still have a few hearers.'
And at once he was angry with himself for falling into this confession of failure. Dalmaine was the last man before whom he would affect humility.
'I am sure,' observed the politician, 'everyone who has the good of the working classes at heart must feel indebted to you. It's so very seldom that men of culture care to address audiences of that kind. Yet it must be the most effectual way of reaching the people. You address them on English Literature, I think?'
Egremont did not care to explain that he had now a broader subject. He murmured an affirmative. Dalmaine had hoped to elicit some of the 'Thoughts for the Present,' and felt disappointment.
'An excellent choice, it seems to me,' he continued, making his glass revolve on the table-cloth. 'They are much too ignorant of the best wealth of their country. They have so few inducements to read the great historians, for instance. If you can bring them to do so, you make them more capable citizens, abler to form a judgment on the questions of the day.'
'My one aim,' he remarked, 'is to persuade them to forget that there are such things as questions of the day.'
Dalmaine also smiled, and with a slight involuntary curling of the lip.
'Ah, I remember our discussions on the Atlantic. I scarcely thought you would apply those ideas in their - their fulness, when you began practical work. You surely will admit that, in a time when their interests are engaging so much attention, working men should - for instance - go to the polls with intelligent preparation.'
'I'd rather they didn't go to the polls at all,' Walter replied. He knew that this was exaggeration, but it pleased him to exaggerate. He enjoyed the effect on the honourable member's broad countenance.
'Come, come!' said Dalmaine, laughing with appearance of entering into the joke. 'At that rate, English freedom would soon be at an end. One might as well abolish newspapers.'
'In my opinion, the one greatest boon that could be granted the working class. I do my best to dissuade them from the reading of newspapers.'
Dalmaine turned the whole matter into a jest. Secretly he believed that Egremont was poking contemptuous fun at him, but it was his principle to receive everything with good-humour. They drew apart again, each feeling more strongly than ever the instinctive opposition between their elements. It amounted to a reciprocal dislike, an irritation provoked by each other's presence. Dalmaine was beginning to suspect Egremont of some scheme too deep for his fathoming; it was easier for him to believe anything, than that idealism pure and simple was at the bottom of such behaviour. Walter, on the other hand, viewed the politician's personality with something more than contempt. Dalmaine embodied those forces of philistinism, that essence of the vulgar creed, which Egremont had undertaken to attack, and which, as he already felt, were likely to yield as little before his efforts as a stone wall under the blow of a naked hand. Two such would do well to keep apart.
On returning to the drawing-room, Egremont kept watch for a vacant place by Paula. Presently he was able to move to her side. She spread her fan upon her lap, and, ruffling its edge of white fur, said negligently:
'So you decided to waste an evening, Mr. Egremont.'
'I decided to have an evening of rest and enjoyment.'
'I suppose you are working dreadfully hard. When do you open your library?'
'Scarcely in less than four or five months.'
'And will you stand at the counter and give out books, like the young men at Mudie's?'
'Sometimes, I dare say. But I have found a librarian.'
'Who is he?'
'A working man in Lambeth. One of the most sympathetic natures I have ever met; a man who might have gone on all his life making candles - that is how things are arranged.'
'Making candles? What a funny change of occupation! And you really think you are doing good in that disagreeable place?'
'I can only hope.'
'You are quite sure you are not doing harm?'
'Does it seem to you that I am?'
Paula assumed an air of wisdom.
'Of course I have no right to speak of such things, but it is my opinion that you are destroying their sense of self-respect. I don't think they ought to have things given them; they should be encouraged to help themselves.'
He examined her face. It was obvious that this profound sentiment had not taken birth in Paula's charming little head, and he guessed from whom she had derived it.
'I have no doubt Mr. Dalmaine would agree with you,' he said smiling. 'I believe I have heard him say something of the kind.'
'I m glad to hear it. Mr. Dalmaine is an authority in such matters.'
'And I, the very reverse of one?'
'Well, I really do think, Mr. Egremont, that you are taking up things for which you are not - not exactly suited, you know.'
She said it with the prettiest air of patronage, looking at him for a moment, then, as usual, letting her eyes wander about the room.
'Miss Tyrrell,' he replied, with gravity that was half genuine, 'tell me for what I am exactly suited, and you will do me a vast kindness.'
'Oh, there are lots of things you do very nicely indeed. I've seen you play croquet beautifully. But I've always thought it a pity you weren't a clergyman.'
'Well, a local preacher is next to it.'
Both were at once carried back to the evening at Ullswater. Paula kept silence; her eyes were directed towards Dalmaine, who almost at the same moment looked towards her. She played with her fan.
'You know that my uncle has been ill?' she said.
'No, I have heard nothing of that.'
Paula looked surprised.
'Don't you hear from - from them?'
'I have a letter from Mr. Newthorpe very occasionally But surely the illness has not been serious?'
'Mamma heard this morning about it. I don't know what's been the matter. I shouldn't wonder if they come to London before long.'
Egremont shortly changed his place, and saw that Dalmaine took the vacant seat by Paula. The two seemed to get on very well together. Paula was evidently exerting herself to be charming; Dalmaine was doing his best to trifle.
He sought more information from Mrs. Tyrrell regarding Mr. Newthorpe. She seemed to fear that her brother-in-law might have been in more danger than Annabel in her letter admitted.
'They certainly must come south,' she said. 'They are having a terrible winter, and it has evidently tried Mr. Newthorpe beyond his strength. You have influence with him, I believe, Mr. Egremont. Pray join me in my efforts to bring them both back to civilisation.'
'I fear my influence will effect nothing if yours fails,' said Walter. 'But Mr. Newthorpe should certainly not risk his health.'
He next had a chat with Mr. John Tyrrell, junior. Paula's brother was two-and-twenty, a frankly sensual youth, of admirable temper, great in turf matters, with a genius for conviviality. Jack's health was perfect, for he had his father's habit of enjoying life without excess, and his stamina allowed a wide limit to the term moderation. Like the rest of his family, he had the secret of conciliating goodwill; there was no humbug in him, and one respected him as a fine specimen of the young male developed at enormous expense. For Egremont he had a certain reverence: a man who habitually thought was clearly, he admitted, of a higher grade than himself, and he had no objection whatever to proclaim his own inferiority. Egremont, talking with him, was half disposed to envy Jack Tyrrell. What a simple thing life was with limitless cash, a perfect digestion, and good-humour in the place of brains!
His room seemed very cold and lonely when he got back to it shortly before midnight. The fire had been let out; the books round the walls had a musty appearance; there was stale tobacco in the air. He paced the floor, thinking of Annabel, wondering whether she would soon be in London, longing to see her. And before he went to bed, he wrote a letter to Mr. Newthorpe, expressing the anxiety with which he had heard of his illness. Of himself he said little; the few words that came to his pen concerning the Lambeth crusade were rather lifeless.
He was being talked of meanwhile in the Tyrrells' drawing-room. The last guests being gone, there was chat for a few minutes between the members of the family.
'Egremont isn't looking quite up to the mark,' said Mr. Tyrrell, as he stood before the fire, hands in pockets.
'I thought the same,' said his wife. 'He seems worried. What a deplorable thing it is, to think that he will spend large sums of money on this library scheme!'
Mr. Tyrrell made inarticulate noises, and at length laughed.
'He must amuse himself in his own way.'
'But after all, papa,' said Paula, whose advocacy went much by the rule of contraries, 'it must be a good thing to give people books to read. I dare say it prevents them from going to the public-house.'
'Shouldn't wonder if it does, Paula,' he replied, with a benevolent gaze.
'Then what's your objection?'
'I don't object to the library in particular. It's only that Egremont isn't the man to do these kind of things. It is to be hoped that he'll get tired of it, and find something more in his line.'
'What is his line?'
'Ah, that's the question! Very likely he hasn't one at all. It seems to me there's a good many young fellows in that case nowadays. They have education, they have money, and they don't know what the deuce to do with either one or the other. They're a cut above you, Mr. Jack; it isn't enough for them to live and enjoy themselves. So they get it into their heads that they're called upon to reform the world - a nice handy little job, that'll keep them going. The girls, I notice, are beginning to have the same craze. I shouldn't wonder if Paula gets an idea that she'll be a hospital-nurse, or go district-visiting in Bethnal Green.'
'I certainly should if I thought it would amuse me,' said Paula. 'But why shouldn't Mr. Egremont do work of this kind? He's in earnest; he doesn't only do it for fun.'
'Of course he's in earnest, and there's the absurdity of it. Social reform, pooh! Why, who are the real social reformers? The men who don't care a scrap for the people, but take up ideas because they can make capital out of them. It isn't idealists who do the work of the world, but the hard-headed, practical, selfish men. A big employer of labour 'll do more good in a day, just because he sees profit 'll come of it, than all the mooning philanthropists in a hundred years. Nothing solid has ever been gained in this world that wasn't pursued out of self-interest. Look at Dalmaine. How much do you think he cares for the factory-hands he's always talking about? But he'll do them many a good turn; he'll make many a life easier; and just because it's his business to do so, because it's the way of advancing himself. He aims at being Home Secretary one of these days, and I shouldn't wonder if he is. There's your real social reformer. Egremont's an amateur, a dilettante. In many ways he's worth a hundred of Dalmaine, but Dalmaine will benefit the world, and it's well if Egremont doesn't do harm.'
In all which it is not impossible that Mr. John Tyrrell hit the nail on the head. Much satisfied with his little oration, he went off to don a jacket and enjoy a cigar by his smoking-room fire.
A couple of days later, Mr. Dalmaine called at the house before luncheon. After speaking with Mrs. Tyrrell, he had a private interview with Paula. The event was referred to in a letter Paula addressed to her cousin Annabel in the course of the ensuing week.
'Dear Bell, - We are much relieved by your letter. It is of course impossible to stay among those mountains for the rest of the winter; I hope uncle will very soon be well enough to come south. The plan of living at Eastbourne for a time is no doubt a good one. You'll have Mrs. Ormonde to talk to. She is very nice, though I've generally found her a little serious: but then she's like you in that. I think it's a pity people trouble themselves about things that only make them gloomy.
'I have a little piece of news for you. It really looks as if I was going to be married. In fact, I've said I would be, and I think it likely I shall keep my word. My name will be Mrs. Dalmaine. Don't you remember Mr. Egremont speaking of Mr. Dalmaine and calling him names? From that moment I made up my mind that he must be a very nice man, and when we made his acquaintance I found that I wasn't so far wrong. You see, poor Mr. Egremont so hates everything and everybody that's practical. Now I'm practical, as you know, so it's right I should marry a practical man. Papa has the highest opinion of Mr. Dalmaine's abilities; he thinks he has a great future in politics. Wouldn't it be delightful if one's husband really became Prime Minister or something of the kind!
'Do you know, it really is a pity that Mr. Egremont is going on in this way! He's going to spend enormous sums of money in establishing a library in Lambeth. It's very good of him, of course, but we are all so sure it's a mistake. Shall I tell you my own view? Mr. Egremont is an idealist, and idealists are not the people to do serious work of this kind. The real social reformers are the hard-headed, practical men, who at heart care only for their own advancement. If you think, I'm sure you'll find this is true. You see that I am beginning to occupy myself with serious questions. It will be necessary in the wife of an active politician. But if you could hint to Mr. Egremont that he is going shockingly astray! He dined with us the other night, and doesn't look at all well. I am so afraid lest he is doing all this just because you tell him to. Is it so?
'But I have fifty other letters to write. My best love to uncle; tell him to get well as quickly as possible. I wonder that dreadful lonely place hasn't killed you both. I shall be so glad to see you again, for I do really like you, Bell, and I know you are awfully wise and good. Think of me sometimes and hope that I shall be happy. - Yours affectionately,
Egremont's face, it was true, showed that things were not altogether well with him. It was not ill-health, but mental restlessness, which expressed itself in the lines of his forehead and the diminished brightness of his eyes. During the last two months of the year he had felt a constant need of help, and help such as would alone stead him he could not find.
It was no mere failing of purpose. He prepared his lectures as thoroughly as ever, and delivered them with no less zeal than in the first weeks; indeed, if anything, his energy grew, for, since his nearer acquaintance with Gilbert Grail, the latter's face before him was always an incentive. There was much to discourage him. More than half his class fell from lukewarmness to patent indifference; they would probably present themselves until the end of the course, but it was little likely that they would recommence with him after Christmas. He was obliged to recognise the utter absence of idealism from all save Grail - unless Bunce might be credited with glimmerings of the true light. Yet intellectually he held himself on firm ground. To have discovered one man such as Grail was compensation for failure with many others, and the project of the library was at all times a vista of hope. But Egremont was not of those who can live on altruism. His life of loneliness irked him, irked him as never yet. The dawn was a recurrence of weariness; the long nights were cold and blank.
The old unrest, which he had believed at an end when once 'the task of his life' was discovered, troubled him through many a cloud-enveloped day. Had he been free, it would have driven him on new travels. Yet that was no longer a real resource. He did not desire to see other lands, but to make a home in his own. And no home was promised him. The longer he kept apart from Annabel, the dimmer did the vision of her become; he held it a sign that he himself was seldom if ever in her mind. Did he still love her? Rather he would have said that there lay in him great faculty of love, which Annabel, if she willed it, could at a moment bring into life; she, he believed, in preference to any woman he had known. It was not passion, and the consciousness that it was not, often depressed him. One of his ideals was that of a passion nurtured to be the crowning glory of life. He did not love Annabel in that way; would that he could have done!
This purely personal distress could not but affect his work. A month before the end of the year he came to the resolve to choose a new subject for the succeeding course of lectures. Forgetting all the sound arguments by which he had been led to prefer the simple teaching of a straightforward subject to any more ambitious prophecy, he was now impelled to think out a series of discourses on - well, on things in general. He got hold of the title, 'Thoughts for the Present,' and the temptation to make use of it proved too great. English literature did not hold the average proletarian mind. It had served him to make an acquaintance with a little group of men; now he must address them in a bolder way, reveal to them his personality. Had he not always contemplated such revelation in the end? Yes, when he found his class fit for it. But he was growing impatient with this slow progress - if indeed it could be called progress at all. He would strike a more significant note.
Walter was in danger, as you very well understand. There is no need at this time of day to remind ourselves of teachers who have fallen into the fatal springe of apostolicism. Men would so fain be prophets, when once they have a fellow mortal by the ear. Egremont could have exposed this risk to you as well as any, yet he deliberately ignored it in his own case - no great novelty that. 'Have I not something veritably to say? Are not thoughts of and for the present surging in my mind? Whereto have we language if not for the purpose of uttering the soul within us?' So he fell to work on his introductory lecture, and for a few days had peace - nay, lived in enthusiasm once more.
His week of absence at Christmas, of which we have heard, was spent again in Jersey. To the roaring music of the Channel breakers he built up his towers and battlements of prophecy. More, he wrote a poem, and for a day wondered whether it might be well to read it to his audience as preface. A friendly sprite whispered in his ear, and saved him from too utter folly. The sprite had not yet forsaken him; woe to him if ever it should! He wrapped the poem in a letter to Mr. Newthorpe, and had a very pleasant reply, written, as he afterwards heard, only a day or two before Mr. Newthorpe fell ill. Annabel sent her message; 'the verses were noble, and pure as the sea-foam.'
On returning to town, he sent a note to Grail, asking him to come in the evening to Great Russell Street or, if that were inconvenient, to appoint a time for a meeting in Walnut Tree Walk. Gilbert accepted the invitation, and came for the first time to Egremont's rooms.
Things were not ill with him, Gilbert Grail. You saw in the man's visage that he had put off ten years of haggard life. His dark, deep eyes spoke their meanings with the ardour of soul's joy; his cheeks seemed to have filled out, his brows to have smoothed. It was joy of the purest and manliest. His life had sailed like some battered, dun-coloured vessel into a fair harbour of sunlight and blue, and hands were busy giving to it a brave new aspect. He could scarce think of all his happiness at once; the coming release from a hateful drudgery, and the coming day which would put Thyrza's hand in his, would not go into one perspective. Sometimes he would all but forget the one in thinking of the other. Now let the early mornings be dark and chill as they would, let the sky lower in its muddy gloom, let weariness of the flesh do its worst - those two days were approaching. Why, was he not yet young? What are five-and-thirty years behind one, when bliss unutterable beckons forward? It should all be forgotten, that grimy past poisoned through and through with the stench of candles. Books, books, and time to use them, and a hearth about which love is busy - what more can you offer son of man than these?
He had written his acceptance, had endeavoured to write his thanks. The words were ineffectual.
Egremont received him in his study with gladness. This man had impressed him powerfully, was winning an ever larger place in his affection. He welcomed him as he would have done an old friend, for whose coming he had looked with impatience.
'Do you smoke?' he asked.
No, Gilbert did not smoke. The money he formerly spent on this had long been saved for the purchase of books. Egremont's after-dinner coffee had to suffice to make cheer. It was a little time before Grail could speak freely. He had suffered from nervousness in undertaking this visit, and his relief at the simplicity of Egremont's rooms, by allowing him to think of what he wished to say, caused him to seem absent.
'I've already begun to jot down lists of obvious books,' Egremont said. 'I have a good general catalogue here, and I mean to go through it carefully.'
Gilbert was at length able to speak his thought.
'I ought to have said far more than I did in my letter, Mr. Egremont. I tried to thank you, but I felt I might as well have left it alone. I don't know whether you have any idea what this change will mean to me. It's more than saving my life, it's giving me a new one such as I never dared to hope for.'
'I'm right glad to hear it!' Walter replied, with his kindest look. 'It comes to make up to me for some little disappointment in other things. I'm afraid the lectures have been of very slight use.'
'I don't think that. I don't think any of the class 'll forget them. It's likely they'll have their best effect in a little time; the men 'll think back upon them. Now Bunce has got much out of them, I believe.'
'Ah, Bunce! Yes, I hoped something from him. By-the-by, he is rather a violent enemy of Christianity, I think?'
'I've heard so. I don't know him myself, except for meeting him at the lectures. Yes, I've heard he's sometimes almost mad about religious subjects.'
Egremont told the story about Bunce's child, which he had had from Mrs. Ormonde. And this led him on to speak of his purpose in this new course of lectures. After describing his plan:
'And that matter of religion is one I wish to speak of most earnestly. I think I can put forward a few ideas which will help a man like Bunce. He wants to be made to see the attitude of a man who retains no dogma, and yet is far more a friend than an enemy of Christianity. I think that lecture shall come first.'
He had not yet made ready his syllabus. As before, he meant to send it to those whose names were upon his list. His first evening would be at the beginning of February.
'I shall try with Ackroyd again,' he said. 'Perhaps the subject this time will seem more attractive to him.'
Gilbert looked grave.
'I'm anxious about Ackroyd,' he replied. 'He's had private trouble lately, and I begin to be afraid it's driving him into the wrong road. He isn't one that can easily be persuaded. I wish you might succeed in bringing him to the lectures.'
Egremont tried to speak hopefully, but in secret he felt that his power over men was not that which draws them from the way of evil and turns them to light. For that is needed more than love of the beautiful. For a moment he mused in misgiving over his 'Thoughts for the Present.'
They began to talk of those details in the library scheme which Egremont had left for subsequent discussion.
'As soon as the premises are in my hands,' he said, 'I shall have the house thoroughly repaired. I should like you to see then if any alteration can be made which would add to your comfort. As soon as the place can be made ready, it will be yours to take possession of. That should be certainly by the end of April. Shall you be free to leave your present occupation then?'
'I can at any time. But I am glad to have a date fixed. I'm going to be married then.'
It was said with a curious diffidence which brought a smile to the hearer's face. Egremont was surprised at the intelligence, glad at the same time.
'That is good news,' he said. 'Of course I had thought of you living with your mother. This will be better still. Your future wife must, of course, examine the house; no doubt she'll be a far better judge than you of what needs doing. When you are back from your honeymoon we shall go to work together on arranging books. That'll be a rare time! We shall throw up our arms, like Dominie Sampson, and cry "Prodigious!"'
He grew mirthful, indulging the boyish humour which, as a reaction from his accustomed lonely silence, came upon him when he had a sympathetic companion. To Gilbert this was a new phase of Egremont's character; he, sober in happiness, answered the young man's merriment with an expressive smile.
Grail had merely mentioned the fact of his intended marriage. When he was alone, Egremont wondered much within himself what kind of woman such a man might have chosen to share his life. Had he contemplated marriage for some time, and been prevented from it by stress of circumstances? It was not easy to picture the suitable partner for Grail. Clearly she must be another than the thriftless, shiftless creature too common in working-class homes. Yet it was not likely that he had met with any one who could share his inner life. Had he, following the example of many a prudent man, chosen a good, quiet, modest woman, whose first and last anxiety would be to keep his home in order and see that he lacked no comfort within her province to bestow? It was probable. She would no doubt be past youth; suppose her thirty. She would have a face which pleased by its homely goodness; she would speak in a gentle voice, waiting upon superior wisdom.
A few days before that appointed for the first lecture of this new course, Egremont received a letter of which the address surprised him. It bore the Penrith post-mark; the writing must be Annabel's. He had very recently written to Mr. Newthorpe, who was not yet well enough to attempt the journey southwards; this reply by another hand might signify ill news. And that proved to be the case. Annabel wrote:
'Dear Mr. Egremont, - Father desires me to answer your very kind letter of a week ago. He has delayed, hoping from day to day to be able to write himself. I grieve to say that he is suffering more than at any time in the last month. I am very anxious, full of trouble. Mrs. Tyrrell wishes to come to me, and I am writing by this post to say that I shall be very glad of her presence. Our doctors say there is absolutely no ground for fear, and gladly I give them my faith; but it tortures me to see my dear father so overcome with pain. The world seems to me very dark, and life a dreadful penalty.
'We read with the greatest interest of what you are doing and hoping. I cannot tell you how we rejoiced in the happiness of Mr. Grail. That is a glorious thing that you have done. I trust his marriage may be a very happy one. When we are at Eastbourne and father is well again, we must come to see your library and no less your librarian. Do not be discouraged if your lectures seem to fail of immediate results. Surely good work will have fruit, and very likely in ways of which you will never know.
'The Tyrrells will have constant news of father, and I am sure will gladly send it on to you. - I am, dear Mr. Egremont, yours sincerely,
It was the first letter he had received from Annabel. For some days he kept it close at hand, and looked over it frequently; then it was laid away with care, not again to be read until the passing of years had given it both a sadder and a dearer significance.
Egremont had a fear that he might seem ungrateful to the man Bower. It was Bower to whom he had gone for help when he first sought to gather an audience, and on the whole the help had been effectual. Yet Bower had not borne the test of nearer acquaintance; Egremont soon knew the vulgarity of his nature, and had much difficulty in sustaining the show of friendly intercourse with him. One evening in mid-February, he called the portly man to speak with him after lecture, and, with what geniality he could, explained to him the details of his library project and told whom he had chosen for librarian. Bower professed himself highly satisfied with everything, and, as usual, affected Egremont disagreeably with his subservience. The latter was not surprised to find that Grail had kept silence on the subject; but it was time now for the arrangements to be made public.
From the lecture-room, Mr. Bower went to a club where he was wont to relax himself of evenings; here he discussed the library question with such acquaintances as were at hand. He reached home just after the closing of the shop. Mary was gone to bed. Mrs. Bower had just finished her supper, and was musing over the second half of her accustomed pint of ale. Her husband threw himself into a chair, with an exclamation of scornful disgust.
'What's wrong now?' asked Mrs. Bower.
'Well, I don't know what you'll call it, but I call it the damnedest bit of sneaking behaviour as I ever knew! He's given the librarianship to that fellow Grail. There's the 'ouse at the back for him to live in, and rent free, no doubt; and there's a good lumping salary, that you may go bail. Now what do you think o' that job?'
'And him not as much as offerin' it to you!'
'Not so much as offerin' it! How many 'ud he have got to hear his lectures without me, I'd like to know! I shouldn't have taken it; no, of course I shouldn't; it wouldn't a' suited me to take a librarianship. But it was his bounden duty to give me the first offer. I never thought he'd make one of us librarian; if it had been some stranger, I shouldn't have made so much of it. But to give it to Grail in that sneaking, underhanded way! Why, I'd be ashamed o' myself. I've a rare good mind never to go near his lectures again.'
'You'd better go,' said Mrs. Bower, prudently. 'He might pay you out at the works. It 'ud be a trick just like him, after this.'
'I'll think about it,' returned the other, with dignity, sitting upright, and gathering his broad beard into his hand.
'Why, there now!' cried his wife, struck with a sudden thought. 'If that doesn't explain something! Depend upon it - depend upon it - that's how Grail got Thyrza Trent to engage herself to him. He'll a' known it for some time, Grail will a' done. He's a mean fellow, or he'd never a' gone and set her against Mr. Ackroyd, as it's easy to see he did. He'll a' told her about the 'ouse and the salary, of course he will! If I didn't think there was something queer in that job!'
Mr. Bower saw at once how highly probable this was.
'And that is why they've put on such hairs, her an' Lydia,' Mrs. Bower pursued. 'It's all very well for Mary to pretend as there's nothing altered. It's my belief Mary's got to know more than she'll tell, and Lydia's quarrelled with her about it. It's easy enough to see as they have fell out. Lydia ain't been to chapel since Christmas, an' you know yourself it was just before Christmas as Egremont went to the 'ouse to see Mr. Grail. If she'd been a bit sharper, she'd never a' told Mary that. I ain't surprised at Thyrza doin' of under-handed things; I've never liked her over-much. But I thought better of Lydia.'
'I've not quarrelled with them,' said Mr. Bower, magnanimously. 'And girls must look out for themselves, and do the best for themselves they can. But that soft-spoken, sneaking Hegremont! You should a' seen him when he had the cheek to tell me about it; you'd a' thought he was going to give me a five-pound note.'
'Now, you'll see,' said Mrs. Bower, 'they'll take off old Boddy to live with them.'
'So much the better. He can't earn his living much longer, and who was to pay us for his lodging and keep, I'd like to know?'
Thus did the worthy pair link together conjectural cause and effect, on principles which their habit of mind dictated.
On one point Mrs. Bower was right. Mary and Lydia had not come together since the former's triumph over her friend. Lydia still visited the shop to see Mr. Boddy, but generally at the times when Mary was away at prayer-meetings.
There was no sign that she suffered at all, the good Lyddy; the trouble of those days before Christmas was lost in the anticipation of the great change that was soon to come upon her sister's life. To that she had resolved to look forward cheerfully; the better she came to know Gilbert, the warmer grew her affection for him. They were made to be friends; in both were the same absolute honesty of character, the same silent depths of tenderness, the same stern self-respect. Brother and sister henceforth, with the bond of a common love which time, whether it brought joy or sorrow, could but knit closer.
From the first there was, of course, an understanding that the marriage should take place as soon as the house was ready for Gilbert's tenancy. Thyrza went secretly and examined the dwelling from the outside, more than once. That Lydia would come and live there went without saying. She pretended to oppose this plan at first; said she must be independent.
'Very well,' said Thyrza, crossing her hands on her lap, 'then I shan't be married at all, Lyddy, and Mr. Grail had better be told at once.'
There was laughing, and there were kind words.
'I don't think you ought still to call him Mr. Grail,' said Lydia.
'Gilbert? I shall have to say it to myself for a few days. Still, it's a nice name, isn't it?'
Yes, that point needed no discussion; where Thyrza abode, there abode Lydia, until - but sadness lay that way. Mrs. Grail was equally clear as to the arrangements concerning herself; she would keep two rooms and continue to live m Walnut Tree Walk. Thyrza thought this would be unkindness to the old lady, but Mrs. Grail had a store of wisdom and was resolute. In practice, she said, she would not at all feel the loneliness; she could often be at the house, and it had occurred to her that her son in the Midlands would be glad to send one of his two girls to live with her for, say, half a year at a time. Gilbert understood the good sense of this disposition.
The weather continued doleful, until at length, in the last week of February, there came a sudden change. A rioting east wind fell upon the murky vapours of the lower sky, broke up the league of rain and darkness, and through one spring-heralding day drove silver fleece over deeps of clear, cold blue. The streets were swept of mire; eaves ceased to distil their sooty rheum; even in the back-ways of Lambeth there was a sunny gleam on windows and a clear ring in all the sounds of life.
It was Saturday. Between Egremont and Grail it had been decided that the latter should to-day take Thyrza to inspect the house. Egremont had gained the surly compliance of the caretaker - the most liberal treatment made no difference in the strange old woman's moroseness - and Grail, promising himself pleasure from Thyrza's surprise, said nothing more than that he wished to see her at three in the afternoon.
The sisters did not come home together from their work, Lydia had an engagement with Mrs. Isaacs, of whom we have heard, and went to snatch a pretence of a dinner in a little shop to which she resorted when there was need. Thyrza, leaving the work-room at half-past one, did not take the direct way to Walnut Tree Walk; the sun and the keen air filled her with a spirit of glad life, and a thought that it would be nice to see how her future home looked under the bright sky came to her temptingly. The distance was not great; she soon came to Brook Street and, with some timidity, turned up the narrow passage, meaning to get a glimpse of the house and run away again. But just as she reached the entrance to the rear-yard, she found herself face to face with someone whom she at once knew for the caretaker whom Gilbert had described to her. The old woman's eye held her. She was half frightened, yet in a moment found words.
'Please,' she said - it seemed to her the only way of explaining her intrusion - 'is there any one in the school now?'
The old woman examined her, coldly, searchingly.
'No, there ain't,' she replied. 'Is it you as is a-goin' to live here?'
This was something like witchcraft to Thyrza.
'Yes, I am,' fell from her lips.
'All right. You can go in and look about. I ain't get nothink to hide away.'
Thyrza was in astonishment, and a little afraid. Yet she dearly wished to see the interior of the house. The old woman turned, and she followed her.
'There ain't no need for me to go draggin' about with you,' said the caretaker, when they were within the door. 'I've plenty o' work o' my own to see to.'
'May I look into the rooms, then?'
'Didn't I say as you could? What need o' so many words?'
Thyrza hesitated; but, the old creature having begun to beat a door-mat, she resolved to go forward boldly. She peeped into all the cheerless chambers, then returned to the door.
'Don't you want to see the school-rooms?' the old woman asked. 'Go along that passage, and mind the step at the end.'
Thyrza was bolder now. The aspect of the house had not depressed her, for she knew that it was to be thoroughly repaired and furnished, and she was predisposed to like everything she saw. It would be her home, hers and Lyddy's; the dignity of occupying a whole house would have compensated for many little discomforts. Thanking the old woman for her direction she went along the dark passage, and came into the large school-room. And this was to be filled with books! She looked at the maps and diagrams for a few moments; though it was so bright a day, the place still kept much of its chill and gloom. Gilbert had told her of the rooms up above, and she thought she might as well complete her knowledge of the building by seeing them. At the first landing on the staircase she came to a window by which the sun streamed in brilliantly: the rays gladdened her. It was nice that the old woman had remained behind; the sense of being quite alone, together with the sudden radiance, affected her with a desire to utter her happiness, and as she went on she sang in a sweet undertone, sang without words, pure music of her heart.
In one of the two rooms above, Egremont happened to be taking certain measurements. Impatient to get his plans completed in detail, he had resolved to come for half an hour on this same day which had been appointed for Grail's visit. Curious as he was to see the woman whom Grail was about to marry - as yet he knew nothing more of her than her casually learnt name - delicacy prevented him from using the opportunity this afternoon would give; the two were to arrive at three o'clock, and long before that time he would have finished his measuring and be gone. And now he was making his last notes, when the sound of as sweet a voice as he had ever heard made him pause and listen. The singer was approaching; her voice grew a little louder, though still in the undertone of one who sings but half consciously. He caught a light footstep, then the door was pushed open.
His hand fell. Even such a face as this would he have desired for her whose voice had such a charm. Her dress told him her position; the greater was his wonder at the features, which seemed to him of faultless delicacy - more than that, of beauty which appealed to him as never beauty had yet. Thyrza stood in alarm; the murmur had died instantly upon her lips, and for a moment she met his gaze with directness. Then her eyes fell; her cheeks recovered with interest the blood which they had lost. She turned to retreat.
But Egremont stepped rapidly forward, saying the first words that came to him.
'Pray don't let me be in your way! I'm this moment going - this moment.'
From her singing, he concluded that she was accustomed to be here. Thyrza again met his look. She guessed who this must be. The kindness of his face as he stood before her caused her to speak the words she was thinking:
'Are you Mr. Egremont, sir?'
Then she was shocked at her boldness; she did not see the smile with which he replied:
'Yes, that is my name.'
'I am Miss Trent. Perhaps you have - perhaps Mr. Grail has told you --'
This, Miss Trent? This, Gilbert Grail's wife? His astonishment scarcely allowed him to relieve her promptly.
'Oh then, we already know each other, by name at least. You have come to look at the building. Mr. Grail is downstairs?'
'No, sir. I came in alone. I thought I should like to see --'
'Of course. You have been over the house?'
He wondered rather at her coming alone, but supposed that Grail was withheld by some business.
'Yes, sir,' she answered.
'I'm afraid you think it doesn't look very promising. But I'm sure we can do a great deal to improve it.'
'I think it's very nice,' Thyrza said, not at all out of politeness, but because she did indeed think so.
'I will do my best to make it so, as soon as it is vacant. These two rooms,' he added, loth to take leave at once, 'we shall use for lectures. Have you been into the other one?'
He led the way, taking up his hat from the desk. Thyrza was overcoming her timidity. All she had ever heard of Egremont prepared her to find him full of gentleness and courtesy and good-humour; already she thought that far too little had been said in his praise. His singular smile occupied her imagination; she wished to keep her eyes on his face, for the pleasure of following its changes. Indeed, like her own, his features were very mobile, and the various emotions now stirring within him animated his look. She kept at a little distance from him, and listened with the keenest interest to all he said. When he paused, after telling her the number of books he had decided to begin with, she said:
'Mr. Grail does so look forward to it. I'm sure nothing could have made him so happy.'
Egremont was pleased with a note of sincerity, of self forgetfulness in these words. He replied:
'I am very glad. I know he'll be at home among books. Are you fond of reading?'
'Yes, sir. Mr. Grail lends me books, and explains what I don't understand.'
'No doubt you will find plenty of time.'
'Yes, sir. I shan't go to work then. But of course there'll be the house to look after.'
Egremont glanced towards the windows and murmured an assent. Thyrza moved a little nearer the door.
'I think I'll go, now I've seen everything.'
'I am going myself.'
She preceded him down the stairs. He watched her ungloved hand touch place after place on the railing, watched her slightly bent head with its long braid of gold and the knot of blue ribbon. At the turning to the lower flight, he caught a glimpse of her profile, and felt that he would not readily forget its perfectness. At the foot he asked:
'Do you wish to pass through the house? If not, this door is open.'
'I'll go this way, sir.'
She just raised her face.
'Good-bye, Miss Trent,' he said, offering his hand.
Then he opened the door for her. After standing for a few moments in the vestibule, he went to speak a word to the caretaker.
Thyrza walked home, looking neither to right nor to left. There was a little spot of colour on each cheek which would not melt away. Reaching the room upstairs, she sat down without taking off her things. She ought to have prepared her dinner, but did not think of it, and at length she was startled by hearing a clock strike three.
She ran down to the Grails' room. Gilbert and his mother had just finished their meal. The latter gossiped for a moment, then went out.
'I want you to go somewhere with me,' Gilbert said.
'Yes, I'm quite ready; but --'
'I have something to tell you, Gilbert. I wonder whether you'll be cross.'
'When was I cross last, Thyrza?'
'No, but I'm not sure whether I ought to have done something. As I was coming home, I thought I'd walk past the house. When I got there, I thought I'd just go up the passage and look. And that old woman met me, and asked me if it was me that was going to live there. How did she know?'
'That's more than I can tell.'
'But that isn't all. She said I might go in and look about if I liked. And I thought I would - did I do wrong?'
She saw a shade of disappointment on his face. But he said:
'Not at all. Did you go over all the rooms?'
'Yes. But there's something else. I went into those school-rooms upstairs, never thinking there was any one there, because the old woman told me there wasn't. But there was - and it was Mr. Egremont.'
'Really? Did he knew who you were?'
'I told him, Gilbert.'
He laughed again, and there was a look of pride in his eyes.
'Well, there's nothing very dreadful yet. And did he speak nicely?'
'Yes, very nicely. And when I went away, he shook hands.'
'It's a very queer thing that you happened to go just to. day. That's exactly where I meant to take you this afternoon. I'm rather disappointed.'
'I'm very sorry. But couldn't I go with you again? We shall be alone this time: Mr. Egremont said he was just going.'
'It won't tire you?'
'Oh, but I should like to go! I made up my mind which'll be Lyddy's room. I wonder whether you'll guess the same.'
'Come along, then!'
Paula Tyrrell was married at Easter. Convenience dictated this speed - in other words, Paula resolved to commence the season as Mrs. Dalmaine and in a house of her own. Mr. Dalmaine had pointed out the advantage of using the Easter recess. As there was scarcely time to select and make ready an abode for permanence, it was decided to take a house in Kensington, which friends of the Tyrrells desired to let for the year.
Annabel was not present at the wedding. It was the second week in March before Mr. Newthorpe felt able to leave Ullswater, and Annabel had little mind to leave him for such a purpose immediately after their establishment at Eastbourne. Indeed, she would rather not have attended the wedding under any circumstances.
Her father had been gravely ill. There was organic disease, and there was what is vaguely called nervous breakdown; it was too clear that Mr. Newthorpe must count upon very moderate activity either of mind or body henceforth. He himself was not quite unprepared for this collapse; he accepted it with genial pessimism. Fate had said that his life was to result in nothing - nothing, that is, from the point of view of his early aspirations. Yet there was Annabel, and in her the memory of his life's passion. As he lay in silence through the days when spring combated with winter, he learned acquiescence; after all, he was among the happier of men, for he could look back upon a few days of great joy, and forward without ignoble anxiety.
He felt that the abandonment of Ullswater was final, yet would not say so to Annabel. Mrs. Ormonde had made ready a house at a short distance from her own, and here the two would live at all events into the summer; beyond that, all must hinge on circumstances. They broke the journey for a couple of days in London, staying with their relatives. During those days Paula behaved very prettily. A certain affection had grown up between her and her uncle whilst she was at Ullswater, and the meeting under these dolefully changed conditions touched her best feelings. Yet with her cousin she was reserved; her behaviour did not bear out the evidence of latent tenderness and admiration contained in that letter of hers which we saw. Annabel had looked for something more. Just now she was longing for affection and sympathy, and Paula was the only girl friend she had. But Paula would only speak of Mr. Dalmaine and, absurdest thing, of politics. Annabel retired into herself. She was glad to reach at length the quiet house by the sea, glad to be near Mrs. Ormonde.
The circumstances of Annabel's early life had worked happily with her inherited disposition. Her father, had he been free to choose, would have planned her training differently, but in all likelihood with less advantage than she derived from the compromise between her parents. Though at the time of her mother's death she still waited for formal recognition as a member of Society, being but sixteen, she was of riper growth than the majority of young ladies who in that season were being led forth for review and to perfect themselves in arts of civilisation. From her mother she had learnt, directly or indirectly, much of that little world which deems the greater world its satellite; from her father she received love of knowledge and reverence for the nobler modes of life. She was marked by a happy balance of character; all that came to her from without she seemed naturally to assimilate in due proportions; her tastes were those of an imaginative temper, tending to joyousness but susceptible of grave impressions. She relished books, yet never allowed them to hold her from bodily exercise; she knew the happiness of solitude, yet could render welcomest companionship; at one time she conversed earnestly with those older and wiser than herself, at another she was the willing playmate of laughing girls. She was loved by those who could by no possibility have loved one another, and in turn she seemed to discover with sure insight what there was of strength and beauty in the most diverse characters. With this breadth of sympathy she developed a self-consciousness of the kind to which most women never attain; habitually studying herself, and making comparison of herself with others, she cultivated her understanding and her emotions simultaneously.
Her time of serious study only began when she exchanged London for the mountain solitude. Henceforth her father's influence exerted itself freely, and Annabel had just reached the age for profiting most by it. Her bringing up between a brilliant drawing-room and a well-stocked library had preserved her from the two dangers to which English girls of the free-born class are mainly exposed: she escaped Puritanism, yet was equally withheld from frivolous worldliness. But it was well that this balance, admirably maintained thus far, should not be submitted to the risks of such a life as awaited her, if there had come no change of conditions. She would be a beautiful woman, and was not unaware of it; her social instincts, which Society would straightway do its best to abuse, might outweigh her spiritual tendencies. But a year of life by Ullswater consolidated her womanhood. She bent herself to books with eagerness. The shock of sorrow compelled her to muse on problems which as yet she had either not realised, or had solved in the light of tradition, childwise. Her mind was ripe for those modern processes of thought which hitherto had only been implicit in her education.
To her father Annabel's companionship was invaluable. She repaid richly out of the abundance of her youthful life that anxious guidance which he gave to her thoughts. Her loving tact sweetened for him many an hour which would else have been spent in profitless brooding: when the signs of which she had become aware warned her that he needed to be drawn from himself, she was always ready with her bright converse, her priceless sympathy. Without her he would seldom have exerted himself to wander far from the house, but Annabel could at any time lead him over hill and valley by pretending that she had need of a holiday. Their communion was of a kind not frequently existing between father and daughter; fellowship in Study made them mental comrades, and respect for each other's intellectual powers was added to their natural love. What did they not discuss? From classical archæology to the fire-new theories of the day in art and science, something of all passed at one time or another under their scrutiny.
Yet there was the limit imposed by fine feeling. Mr. Newthorpe never tried to pass the sacred bound which parts a father's province from that of a mother. There was much in the girl's heart that he would gladly have read, yet could not until she should of herself reveal it to him. For instance, they did not very often speak of Egremont. When a letter arrived from him, Mr. Newthorpe always gave it to Annabel to read; at other times that was a subject on which he spoke only when she introduced it. After Walter's departure there had been one conversation between them in which Annabel told what had come to pass; she went so far as to speak of a certain trouble she had on Paula's account.
'I think you must use your philosophy with regard to Paula,' her father replied. 'Of course I know nothing of the circumstances, but,' he smiled not unkindly, 'the child I think I know pretty well. Don't be troubled. I have confidence in Egremont.'
'I have the same feeling in truth, father,' Annabel said, 'and - I feel nothing more than that.'
'Then let it rest, dear. I certainly have no desire to lose you.'
So much between them. Thereafter, both spoke of Egremont, when at all, in an unconstrained way. Annabel showed frank interest in all that concerned him, but, as far as Mr. Newthorpe could discern, nothing more than the interest of friendliness. As the months went on, he discerned no change. Her life was as cheerful and as steadily industrious as ever; nothing betrayed unsettlement of the thought. If her father by chance entered the room where she studied, he found her bent over books, her face beautiful in calm zeal.
The first grave symptoms of illness in her father opened a new chapter of Annabel's life. It was time to lay aside books for a little; the fated scheme of her existence required at this point new experiences. The student's habit does not readily reconcile itself to demands for practical energy and endurance, and when the first strain of fear-stricken love was relaxed, Annabel fell for a few days into grievous weakness of despondency; summoned from her study to all the miseries of a sick-room, it was mere nervous force that failed her. When her father had his relapse, she was able to face the demand upon her more sternly. But the trial through which she was passing was a severe one. With the invalid she could keep a bright face, and make her presence, as ever, a blessing to him. Alone, she cared no longer for her books, nor for the beauty that was about her home. You remember that passage in her letter to Egremont: 'The world seems to me very dark, and life a dreadful penalty.' She could have uttered much on that text to one from whom she had had no secret.
One day, when Mr. Newthorpe was again recovering strength, there came a letter from Mrs. Tyrrell which announced the date of Paula's marriage. Annabel received the letter to read. As she was sitting with her father a little later, he said, with a return of his humorous mood:
'I wonder on what footing Egremont will be in the new household?'
'I suppose,' Annabel replied, 'his acquaintance with Mr. Dalmaine will continue to be of the slightest.'
He paused a little, then, quietly:
'I am glad of this marriage.'
Annabel said nothing.
'It proves,' he continued, 'that we did well in not thinking too gravely of a certain incident.'
Annabel led the conversation away. She had singular thoughts on this subject. Paula's letter, first announcing the engagement, made mention of Egremont in a curious way; and it was at least a strange hap that Paula should be about to marry the man against whom Egremont had expressed such an antipathy.
Her father said no more, but Annabel had a new care for her dark mood to feed upon. She felt that the words 'I am glad of this marriage' concerned herself. They meant that her father was glad of the removal of what was perchance one barrier between Egremont and herself. And in these long weeks in which she was anguished by the spectacle of suffering, it had become her first desire to be of comfort to the sufferer. Her ideal of a placid life was shattered; the things which availed her formerly now seemed weak to rely upon. In so dark a world, what guidance was there save by the hand of love?
With Egremont she was in full intellectual sympathy, and the thought of becoming his wife had no painful associations; but could she bring herself to abandon that ideal of love which had developed with her own development? Must she relinquish the hope of a great passion, and take the hand of a man whom she merely liked and respected? It was a question she must decide, for Walter, when they again met, might again seek to win her. The idealism which she derived from her father would not allow her yet to regard life as a compromise, which women are so skilled in doing practically, though the better part in them to the end revolts. Yet who was she, that life should bestow its highest blessing upon her?
When at the Tyrrells' house in London, she feared lest Egremont should come. Mrs. Tyrrell spoke much of him the first evening, lamenting that he had so withdrawn himself from his friends. But he did not come.
At Eastbourne, Mr. Newthorpe's health began to improve. Even in a week the change was very marked. He seemed to have taken a resolve to restore the old order of things by force of will. Doubtless his conversations with Mrs. Ormonde about Annabel were an incentive to effort; relieved from the weight of suffering, he could see that the girl was not herself. On Paula's marriage day, he said, in the course of conversation with Annabel:
'Your aunt desires very much to have you with her for a part of the season. What do you think of it? Would you care to go up in May?'
Annabel did not at once reject the idea.
'It is my opinion that you need some such change,' her father continued. 'The last quarter of a year has done you harm. In a month I hope to be sound enough.'
'I will think of it,' she said. And there the subject rested.
The town was secretly attracting her. The odour of the Tyrrells' house had exercised a certain seduction. Though she saw but one or two old acquaintances there, the dining-room, the drawing-room, brought the past vividly back to her. She was not so wholly alien to her mother's blood that the stage-life of the world was without appeal to her, and circumstances were favourable to a revival of that element in her character which I touched upon when speaking of her growth out of childhood. It is a common piece of observation that studious gravity in youth is succeeded by a desire for action and enjoyment. Annabel's disposition to study did not return, though quietness was once more restored to her surroundings. And thus, though the settlement at Eastbourne seemed a relief, she soon found that it did not effect all she hoped. Her father began to take up his books again, though in a desultory, half-hearted way. Annabel could not do even that. A portion of each day she spent with Mrs. Ormonde; often she walked by herself on the shore; a book was seldom in her hand.
Two or three days before the end of March, Mr. Newthorpe spoke of Egremont.
'I should like to see him. May I ask him to come and spend a day with us, Annabel?'
'Do by all means, father,' she answered. 'Mrs. Ormonde heard from him yesterday. He came into possession of his library-building the other day.'
'I will write, then.'
This was Monday; on Wednesday morning Egremont came. The nine months or so which had passed since these three met had made an appreciable change in all of them. When Egremont entered the room where father and daughter were expecting him, he was first of all shocked at the wasting and ageing of Mr. Newthorpe's face, then surprised at the difference he found in Annabel - this, too, of a kind that troubled him. He thought her less beautiful than she had been. With no picture of her to aid him, he had for long periods been unable to make her face really present to his mind's eye - one of the sources of his painful debates with himself. When it came, as faces do, at unanticipated moments, he saw her as she looked in walking back with him from the lake-side, when she declared that the taste of the rain was sweet. Is it not the best of life, that involuntary flash of memory upon instants of the eager past? Better than present joy, in which there is ever a core of disappointment; better, far better, than hope, which cannot warm without burning. Annabel was surpassingly beautiful as he knew her in that brief vision. Beautiful she still was, but it was as if a new type of loveliness had come between her and his admiration; he could regard her without emotion. The journey from London had been one incessant anticipation, tormented with doubt. Would her presence conquer him royally, assure her dominion, convert his intellectual fealty to passionate desire? He regarded her without emotion.
Yet Annabel was not so calm as she wished to be. Only by force of will could she exchange greetings without evidence of more than friendly pleasure. This irritated her, for up to an hour ago she had said that his coming would in no way disturb her. When, after an hour's talk, she left her father and the guest together, and went up to her room, the first feeling she acknowledged to herself was one of disappointment. Egremont had changed, and not, she thought, for the better. He had lost something - perchance that freshness of purpose which had become him so well. He seemed to talk of his undertakings less spontaneously, and in a tone - she could not quite say what it was, but his tone perhaps suggested the least little lack of sincerity. And her agitation when he entered the room? It had meant nothing, nothing. Her nerves were weak, that was all.
She wished she could shed tears. There was no cause for it, surely none, save a physical need. Such a feeling was very strange to her.
They had luncheon; then, as his custom was, Mr. Newthorpe went apart to rest for a couple of hours. Mrs. Ormonde was coming to dine; the hour of the meal would be early, to allow of Egremont's return to town. In the meantime the latter obtained Annabel's consent to a walk. They took the road ascending to Beachy Head.
'You still have opportunity of climbing,' Egremont said.
'On a modest scale. But I am not regretting the mountains. The sea, I think, is more to me at present.'
They were not quite at ease together. Conversation turned about small things, and was frequently broken. The day was not very bright, and mist spoiled the view landwards. The sea was at ebb, and sluggish.
Annabel of her own accord reverted to Lambeth.
'You must have had many pleasures arising from your work,' she said, 'but one above all I envy you. I mean that of helping poor Mr. Grail so well.'
'Yes, that is a real happiness,' he answered, thoughtfully. 'The idea of making him librarian came to me almost at the same moment as that of establishing the library. I didn't know then all that it would mean to him. I was fortunate in meeting that man, one out of thousands.'
'He must be deeply grateful to you.'
'We are good friends. I respect him more than I can tell you. I don't think you could find a man, in whatever position, of more sterling character. His love of knowledge touches me as something ideal. It is monstrous to think that he might have spent all his life in that candle factory.'
Annabel reflected for a moment. Then a look of pleasure fighted her face, and she spoke with a revival of the animation which had used to appeal so strongly to his sympathies.
'See what one can do! You become a sort of providence to a man. Indeed, you change his fate; you give him a new commencement of life. What a strange thought that is? Do you feel it as I do?'
'Quite, I think. And can you understand that it has sometimes shamed me? Just because I happen to have money I can do this! Isn't it a poor sordid world? Not one man, but perhaps a hundred, could be raised into a new existence by what in my hands is mere superfluity of means. Doesn't such a thought make life a great foolish game? Suppose me saying, 'Here is a thousand pounds; shall I buy a yacht to play with, or - shall I lift a living man's soul out of darkness into light?''
He broke off and laughed bitterly. Annabel glanced at him. She noticed that thoughts of this cast were now frequent in his mind, though formerly they had been strange to him. He used to face problems with simple directness, in the positive spirit or with an idealist's enthusiasm; now he leaned to scepticism, though it was his endeavour to conceal the tendency. She was struck with the likeness of this change in him to that which she herself was suffering; yet it did not touch her sympathies, and she was anxious forthwith to avoid coincidence with him.
'You yourself offer the answer to that,' she replied. 'The very fact that you have exerted such power, never mind by what means, puts you in a relation to that man which is anything but idle or foolish. Isn't it rather a great and moving thing that one can be a source of such vast blessing to another? Money is only the accident. It is the kindness, the human feeling, that has to be considered. You show what the world might be, if all men were human. If I could do one act like that, Mr. Egremont, I should cry with gratitude!'
He looked at her, and found the Annabel of his memory. With the exception of Mrs. Ormonde, he knew no woman who spoke thus from heart and intellect at once. The fervour of his admiration was rekindled.
'It is to you one should come for strength,' he said, 'when the world weighs too heavily.'
Annabel was sober again.
'Do you often go and see him at his house?' she asked, speaking of Grail.
'I am going on Friday night. I have not been since that one occasion which I mentioned in a letter to Mr. Newthorpe. I had to write to him yesterday about the repair of the house he is going to live in, and in his reply this morning he asked me to come for an hour's talk.'
'You were curious, father told me, about the wife he had chosen. Have you seen her yet?'
'Yes. She is quite a young girl.'
He was looking at a far-off sail, and as he replied his eyes kept the same direction. Annabel asked no further question. Egremont laughed before he spoke again.
'How absurdly one conjectures about unknown people I suppose it was natural to think of Grail marrying someone not quite young and very grave.'
'But I hope she is grave enough to be his fitting companion?'
He opened his lips, but altered the words he was about to speak.
'I only saw her for a few minutes - a chance meeting. She impressed me favourably.'
They walked in a leisurely way for about half an hour, then turned, Mists were creeping westward over Pevensey, and the afternoon air was growing chill. There was no sound from the sea, which was divided lengthwise into two tracts of different hue, that near the land a pale green, that which spread to the horizon a cold grey.
Nothing passed between them which could recall their last day together, nothing beyond that one exclamation of Egremont's, which Annabel hardly appeared to notice. Neither desired to prolong the conversation. Yet neither had ever more desired heart-sympathy than now.
Annabel said to herself: 'It is over.' She was spared anxious self-searching. The currents of their lives were slowly but surely carrying them apart from each other. When she came into the drawing-room to offer tea, her face was brighter, as if she had experienced some relief.
Mrs. Ormonde had not seen Egremont for some six weeks. The tone of the one or two letters she had received from him did not reassure her against misgivings excited at his latest visit. To her he wrote far more truly than to Mr. Newthorpe, and she knew, what the others did not, that he was anything but satisfied with the course he had taken since Christmas in his lecturing. 'After Easter,' was her advice, 'return to your plain instruction. It is more fruitful of profit both to your hearers and to yourself.' But Egremont had begun to doubt whether after Easter he should lecture at all.
'Mr. Bunce's little girl is coming to me again,' she said, in the talk before dinner. 'You know the poor little thing has been in hospital for three wreks?'
'I haven't heard of it,' Egremont replied. 'I'm sorry that I haven't really come to know Bunce. I had a short talk with him a month ago, and he told me then that his children were well. But he is so reticent that I have feared to try further, to get his confidence.'
'Why, Bunce is the aggressive atheist, isn't he?' said Mr. Newthorpe.
Mrs. Ormonde smiled and nodded.
'I fear he is a man of misfortunes,' she said. 'My friend at the hospital tells me that his wife was small comfort to him whilst she lived. She left him three young children to look after, and the eldest of them - she is about nine - is always ill. There seems to be no one to tend them whilst their father is at work.'
'Who will bring the child here?' Egremont asked.
'She came by herself last time. But I hear she is still very weak; perhaps someone will have to be sent from the hospital.'
During dinner, the library was discussed. Egremont reported that workmen were already busy in the school-rooms and in Grail's house.
'I'm in correspondence,' he said, 'with a man I knew some years ago, a scientific fellow, who has heard somehow of my undertakings, and wrote asking if he might help by means of natural science. Perhaps it might be well to begin a course of that kind in one of the rooms. It would appeal far more to the Lambeth men than what I am able to offer.'
This project passed under review, then Egremont himself led the talk to widely different things, and thereafter resisted any tendency it showed to return upon his special affairs. Annabel was rather silent.
An hour after dinner, Egremont had to depart to catch his train. He took leave of his friends very quietly.
'We shall come and see the library as soon as it is open,' said Mr. Newthorpe.
Egremont smiled merely.
Mr. Newthorpe remarked that Egremont seemed disappointed with the results of his work.
'I should uncommonly like to hear one of these new lectures,' he said. 'I expect there's plenty of sound matter in them. My fear is lest they are over the heads of his audience.'
'I fear,' said Mrs. Ormonde, 'it is waste both of his time and that of the men. But the library will cheer him; there is something solid, at all events.'
'Yes, that can scarcely fail of results.'
'I think most of Mr. Grail,' put in Annabel.
'A true woman,' said Mrs. Ormonde, with a smile. 'Certainly, let the individual come before the crowd.'
And all agreed that in Gilbert Grail was the best result hitherto of Egremont's work.
The man of reserve betrays happiness by disposition for companionship. Surprised that the world all at once looks so bright to his own eyes, he desires to learn how others view it. The unhappy man is intensely subjective; his own impressions are so inburnt that those of others seem to him unimportant - nay, impertinent. And what is so bitter as the spectacle of alien joy when one's own heart is waste!
Gilbert Grail was no longer the silent and lonely man that he had been. The one with whom he had formed something like a friendship had gone apart; in the nature of things Ackroyd and he could never again associate as formerly, though when need was they spoke without show of estrangement; but others whom he had been wont to hold at a distance by his irresponsiveness were now of interest to him, and, after the first surprise at the change in him, they met his quiet advances in a friendly way. Among his acquaintances there were, of course, few fitted to be in any sense his associates. Two, however, he induced to attend Egremont's lectures, thus raising the number of the audience to eight. These recruits were not enthusiastic over 'Thoughts for the Present;' one of them persevered to the end of the course, the other made an excuse for absenting himself after two evenings.
Gilbert held seriously in mind the pledge he had given to Egremont to work for the spread of humane principles. One of those with whom he often spoke of these matters was Bunce - himself a man made hard to approach by rude experiences. Bunce was a locksmith; some twelve years ago he had had a little workshop of his own, but a disastrous marriage brought him back to the position of a journeyman, and at present he was as often out of work as not. Happily his wife was dead; he found it a hard task to keep his three children. The truth was that his domestic miseries had, when at their height, driven him to the public-house, and only by dint of struggles which no soul save his own was aware of was he gradually recovering self-confidence and the trust of employers. His attendance at Egremont's lectures was part of the cure. Though it was often hard to go out at night and leave his little ones, he did so that his resolve might not suffer. He and they lived in one room, in the same house which sheltered Miss Totty Nancarrow.
On the evening which Egremont spent at Eastbourne, Grail came across Bunce on the way home from the factory. They resumed a discussion interrupted a day or two before, and, as they passed the end of Newport Street, Bunce asked his companion to enter for the purpose of looking at a certain paper in which he had found what seemed to him cogent arguments. They went up the dark musty staircase, and entered the room opposite to Totty's.
'Hollo!' Bunce cried, finding no light. 'What's up? Nellie! Jack!'
It was usual, since the eldest child was at the hospital, for the landlady to come and light a lamp for the two little ones when it grew dusk. Bunce had an exaggerated fear of giving trouble, and only sheer necessity had compelled him to request this small service.
'They'll be downstairs, I suppose,' he muttered, striking a match.
The hungry room had no occupants. On the floor lay a skeleton doll, a toy tambourine, a whipping-top, and a wried tin whistle. There was one bedstead, and a bed made up on a mattress laid on the floor. On a round clothless table stood two plates, one with a piece of bread and butter remaining, and two cups and saucers. The fire had died out.
A shrill voice was calling from below stairs.
'Mr. Bunce! Mr. Bunce! Your children is gone out with Miss Nancarrow as far as the butcher's. They won't be more than five minutes, I was to say, if you came in.'
'Thank you, Mrs. Ladds,' Bunce replied briefly.
He came in and closed the door.
'That's a new thing,' he said, as if doubtful whether to be satisfied or not. 'I hope she won't begin taking 'em about. Still, she isn't a bad lot, that girl. Do you know anything of her?'
'Why, yes. I've heard of her often from Miss Trent. Isn't she a good deal with Ackroyd?'
'Can't say. She's not a bad lot. She's going to take my Bessie down to Eastbourne at the end of the week.'
'But why don't you go yourself? It would do you good.'
Bunce shrugged his shoulders.
'No, I can't go myself. Just for the child's sake, I have to put up with that kind of thing, but I don't like it. It's charity, after all, and I couldn't face those people at the home.'
'What home is it?' Grail asked. He knew, but out of delicacy wished the explanation to come from Bunce.
'I don't know as it has any name. It seems to be in connection with the Children's Hospital. The matron, or whatever you call her, is a Mrs. Ormonde.'
'Oh, I know about her!' Gilbert exclaimed. 'She's a friend of Mr. Egremont's. He's s spoken of her once or twice to me. You needn't be afraid of meeting her. She's a lady who has given up her own house for this purpose: as good a woman, I believe, as lives.'
'Well,' said Bunce, doggedly, 'I'm thankful to her, but I can't face her. What's this, I'd like to know?'
His eye caught something that looked like a small pamphlet lying near the fireplace. He stooped to pick it up.
'If they're beginning to throw my papers about --'
The sudden silence caused Gilbert to look at him. Bunce was not a well-favoured man, but ordinarily a rugged honesty helped the misfortunes of his features, a sort of good-humour, too, which seemed unable to find free play. But of a sudden his face had become ferocious, startling in its exasperated surprise, its savage wrath. His eyes glared blood-shot, his teeth were uncovered, his jaws protruded as if in an animal impulse to rend.
'How's this got here?' he almost roared. 'Who brings things o' this kind into my room? Who's put this into my children's hands?'
'What on earth is it?' Gilbert asked in amazement.
'What is it? Look at that! Look at that, I say! If this is the landlady's work, I'll find a new room this very night!'
Gilbert tried to take the paper, but Bunce's hand, which trembled violently, held it with such a grip that there was no getting possession of it. With difficulty Grail perceived that it was a religious tract.
'Why, there's no great harm done,' he said. 'The children can't read, can they?'
'Jack can! The boy can! I'm teaching him myself.'
He raved. The sight of that propagandist document affected him, to use the old simile, as scarlet does a bull. Gilbert knew the man's prejudices, but, in his own more cultured mind, could not have conceived such frenzy of hatred as this piece of Christian doctrine excited in Bunce. For five minutes the poor fellow was possessed; sweat covered his face; he was shaken as if by bodily anguish. He read scraps aloud, commenting on them with scornful violence. Last of all he flung the paper to the ground and trampled it into shreds. Gilbert had at first difficulty in refraining from laughter; then he sat down and waited with some impatience for the storm to spend itself.
'Come, come, Bunce,' he said, when he could make himself heard, 'remember Mr. Egremont's lecture on those things. I think pretty much as you do about Christianity - about the dogmas, that is; but we've no need to fear it in this way. Let's take what good there is in it, and have nothing to do with the foolish parts.'
Bunce seated himself, exhausted. Not a few among the intelligent artisans of our time are filled with that spirit of hatred against all things Christian; in him it had become a mania. Egremont's eirenicon had been a hard saying to him; he had tried to think it over, because of his respect for the teacher, but as yet it had resulted in no sobering. His mind was not sufficiently prepared for lessons of wisdom; had Egremont witnessed this scene, he might well have groaned in spirit over the ineffectualness of his prophesying.
Gilbert spoke with earnestness. To him his friend's teaching had come as true and refreshing, and he could not lose such an opportunity as this of pushing on the work. He insisted on the beauty there was in the Christian legend, on its profound spiritual significance, on the poverty of all religious schemes which man had devised to replace it.
'We want no religion!' cried Bunce angrily. 'It's been the curse of the world. Look at the Inquisition! Look at the religious wars! Look at the Jesuits!'
He was primed with such historic instances out of books and pamphlets spread broadcast by the contemporary apostles of 'free thought.' Of history proper he of course knew nothing, but these splinters of quasi-historic evidence had run deep into his flesh. Despise him, if you like, but try to understand him. It was his very humaneness which brought him to this pass; recitals of old savagery had poisoned his blood, and the 'spirit of the age' churned his crude acquisitions into a witch's cauldron. Academic sweetness and light was a feeble antidote to offer him.
Gilbert soothed his companion for the time. He knew where to stop, and promised himself to find a fitter season for pursuing the same subject. Just as he had reverted to the topic of conversation which brought him here, there came a knock at the door.
'Come in!' growled Bunce.
Totty Nancarrow appeared. One of her hands led a little fellow of seven, a bright lad, munching a 'treacle-stick;' the other, a little girl a year younger, who exclaimed as she entered:
'Been a walk with Miss Nanco!'
'We've been to the butcher's with Miss Nancarrow, father,' declared the boy, consciously improving on his sister's report.
Totty had drawn back a step at the sight of Grail. He and she knew each other by sight, but had not yet exchanged words.
'I found them in the dark, Mr. Bunce,' she said, half laughing. 'Mrs. Ladds was out, and couldn't get back in time to light the lamp for them. I hope you don't mind. I thought a little bit of a walk 'ud do them good.'
Bunce always softened at the sight of his little ones.
'I'm much obliged to you, Miss Nancarrow,' he said.
'Miss Nanco bought me sweets,' remarked little Nelly, when her father had drawn her between his knees. And she exhibited a half-sucked lollipop. Her brother hid away his own delicacy, feeling all at once that it compromised his masculine superiority.
'Then I'm very angry with Miss Nanco,' replied Bunce. 'I hope she'll never do anything o' the kind again.'
Totty laughed and drew back into the passage. Thence she said:
'Could I speak to you a minute, Mr. Bunce?'
He went out to her, and half closed the door behind him. Totty led him a step or two down the stairs, then whispered:
'I'm so sorry, Mr. Bunce, but I find I can't very well go on Saturday. But I've just seen Miss Trent, the one that's going to marry Mr. Grail, you know; and she says she'd be only too glad to go, that is if Mr. Grail 'll let her, and she's quite sure he will. Would you ask Mr. Grail? Thyrza - that's Miss Trent, I mean - was so anxious; she's never been to the seaside. Will you just ask him?'
'Oh yes, I will.'
'I'm sorry I've had to draw back, Mr. Bunce, after offering --'
'It don't matter a bit, Miss Nancarrow. Miss Trent 'll do just as well, if she really don't mind the trouble.'
'Trouble! Why, she'd give anything to go! Please get Mr. Grail to let her.'
Bunce returned to his room and closed the door. Gilbert had taken Nelly on his knee, and was satisfying her by tasting the remnant of lollipop.
'I say, Jack!' cried the father, his eye again catching sight of the bruised tract on the floor. 'Who brought that here?'
'I did, father,' answered the youngster stoutly, though he saw displeasure in his father's face.
'Where did you get it, eh?' was asked sharply.
'A lady gave it me at the door.'
'Then I'd thank ladies to mind their own business. And you never take anything else at the door; do you understand that, Jack?'
Bunce turned to Gilbert, who was waiting to depart.
'Miss Nancarrow tells me she can't go to Eastbourne on Saturday. But she says Miss Trent's very anxious to go instead of her. What do you think of it?'
Grail reflected. The plan pleased him on the whole, though he had just a doubt whether Thyrza ought to travel by herself.
'I see no reason why she shouldn't,' he said. 'It'll be a pleasure to her, and I shall be glad to have her do you the kindness.'
'Then could I see her before Saturday?'
'Come in to-morrow night, will you?'
The second course of lectures was at an end. Egremont had only delivered one a week since Christmas, and even so it cost him no little effort to spread his 'Thoughts for the Present' over the three months, Latterly he had blended a good deal of historical disquisition with his prophecy: the result was to himself profoundly unsatisfactory. He sighed with relief as he dismissed his poor little audience for the last time. For the future he had made no promises, beyond saying that in his library-building there were two rooms which were to be devoted to lectures. The library itself was now his chief care. This was something solid; it would re-establish him in his self-confidence.
Yes; 'Thoughts for the Present' had been a failure.
The first lecture was far away the best. It dealt with Religion. Addressed to an audience ready for such philosophical views, it would have met with a flattering reception. Egremont's point of view was, strictly, the æsthetic; he aimed at replacing religious enthusiasm, as commonly understood, by æsthetic. The loveliness of the Christian legend - from that he started. He dealt with the New Testament very much as he had formerly dealt with the Elizabethan poets. He would have no appeal to the vulgar by aggressive rationalists. Let rationalism filter down in the course of time; the vulgar were not prepared for it as yet. It was bad that they should be superstitious, but worse, far worse, that they should be brutally irreverent, and brutal irreverence inevitably came of atheism preached at the street corner. The men who preached it were themselves the very last to guide human souls; they were of coarsest fibre, without a note of music in them, fit only for the world's grosser purposes. And they presumed to attack the ministry of Christ! It was good, all that he had to say on that point, the better that it made two or three of his hearers feel a little sore and indignant. Yet, as a whole, the lecture appealed to but one of the audience. Gilbert Grail heard it with emotion, and carried it away in his heart. To the others it was little more than the sounding of brass and the tinkling of cymbals.
To-night - Friday - he was going to Grail's. Of course no ceremonious preparation was necessary, yet he wasted a couple of hours previous to his time for setting forth. He could not apply himself to anything; he paced his room. Indeed, he had paced his room much of late. Week by week he seemed to have grown more unsettled in mind. He had said to himself that all would be well when he had seen Annabel. He had seen her, and his trouble was graver than before.
At the hour when Egremont set out for Lambeth Lydia was busy dressing her sister's hair. Perhaps such a thing had never happened before, as that Thyrza's hair should have needed doing twice in one day. She had begged it this evening.
'You won't mind, Lyddy? I feel it's rough, and I think I ought to look nice - don't you?'
'You're a vain little thing!'
'I don't think I am, Lyddy. It's only natural.'
A moment or two, and Thyrza said:
'Lyddy, I think you ought to come down as well.'
'I've told you that I shan't, so do have done!'
'Well, dear, it's only because I want you to see Mr. Egremont.'
'I've seen him, and that's enough. If you're going to be a lady and make friends with grand people, that's no reason why I should.'
'You'll have to some day.'
'I don't think I shall,' said Lydia, as she began the braiding. 'You and me are very different, dear. I shall go on in my own way. Do keep still! How am I to tie this ribbon?'
'Kiss me, Lyddy! Say that you love me!'
'I don't think I shall.'
It was said so gravely that Lydia, having finished her task, came round before the chair and looked in her sister's face.
'I think I should die if I hadn't someone to love me.'
'I don't think you'll ever want that, Thyrza.'
The other drew a profound sigh, so profound that it left her bosom trembling. And for a few moments she sat in a dream.
Then she proceeded to change her dress and make ready for her formal appearance downstairs on the occasion of Egremont's visit. She had never been so anxious to look well. Lydia affected much impatience with her, but in truth was profoundly happy in her sister's happiness. She looked often at the beautiful face, and thought how proud Gilbert must be.
'Do you think I ought to shake hands with Mr. Egremont?' Thyrza asked.
'If he offers to, you must,' was Lydia's opinion. 'But not if he doesn't.'
'He did when he said good-bye at the school.'
Before long they heard the expected double knock at the house-door. They had left their own door ajar that they might not miss this signal. Thyrza sprang to the head of the stairs and listened. She heard Gilbert admit his visitor, and she heard the latter's voice. It was now a month since the meeting at the school, but the voice sounded so exactly as she expected that it brought back every detail of that often-recalled interview, and made her heart throb with excitement.
She was now to wait a whole quarter of an hour.
'Sit down and read,' said Lydia, who had herself begun to sew in the usual methodical way.
Thyrza pretended to obey. For two minutes she sat still, then asked how they were to know when a quarter of an hour had passed.
'I'll tell you,' said the other. 'Sit quiet, there's a good baby, and I'll buy you a cake next time we go out.'
Thyrza drew in her breath - and somehow the time was lived through.
'Now I think you may go,' Lydia said.
Thyrza seemed to have become indifferent. She turned over a page of her book, and at length rose very slowly. Lydia watched her askance; she thought she saw signs of timidity. But Thyrza presently moved to the door and went downstairs with her lightest step.
Gilbert had told her not to knock. Her hand was on the knob some moments before she ventured to turn it. She heard Egremont laughing - his natural laugh which was so attractive - and then there fell a silence. She entered.
No, Gilbert had not seated his visitor in the easy chair; that must be reserved for someone of more importance. Egremont rose with a look of pleasure.
'You know Miss Trent already?' Gilbert said to him.
Thyrza drew near. She did not hear very distinctly what Egremont was saying, but certainly he was offering to shake hands. Then Gilbert placed the easy chair in a convenient position, and she did her best to sit as she always did. Her manner was not awkward - it was impossible for her to be awkward - but she was afraid of saying something that 'wasn't grammar,' and to Egremont's agreeable remarks she replied shortly. Yet even this only gave her an air of shyness which was itself a grace. When Grail had entered into the conversation she was able to collect herself.
Gilbert said presently: 'Miss Trent is going to take Bunce's child to Eastbourne to-morrow, to Mrs. Ormonde's.'
'Indeed!' Egremont exclaimed. 'I was there on Wednesday and heard that the child was coming. But this arrangement hadn't been made then, I think?'
'No. Somebody else was to have gone, but she has found she can't.'
'You will be glad to know Mrs. Ormonde, I'm sure,' Egremont said to Thyrza.
'And I'm glad to go to the seaside,' Thyrza returned. 'I've never seen the sea.'
'Haven't you? How I wish I could have your enjoyment of to-morrow, then!'
Mrs. Grail was knitting. She said: 'I think you have voyaged a great deal, sir?'
It led to talk of travel. Egremont was drawn into stories of East and West. Ah, how good it was to get out of the circle of social prophecy! It was like breathing the very mid Atlantic sky to talk gaily and freely of things wherein no theory was involved, which left aside every ideal save that of joyous living. Thyrza listened. He - he before her - had trodden lands whereof the names were to her like echoes from fairy tales; he had passed days and nights on the bosom of the great sea, which she looked forward to beholding almost with fear; he had seen it in tempest, and the laughing descriptions he gave of vast green rolling mountains made to her inward sight an awful reality.
'You never thought of going to one of the Colonies?' Egremont asked of Gilbert.
'Yes, years ago,' was the reply, in the tone of a man who sees the trouble of life behind him. 'I think at one time my mother rather despised me because I couldn't make up my mind to go and seek my fortune.'
'I never despised you, my dear,' said the old lady, 'but that was when some friends of ours were sending wonderful news from Australia, sir, and I believe I did half try to persuade Gilbert to go. His health was very bad, and I thought it might have done him good in all ways.'
'By-the-by,' remarked Gilbert, 'Ackroyd talks of going to Canada.'
'Ackroyd?' said Egremont. 'I'm not surprised to hear that.'
Thyrza had looked at Gilbert anxiously.
'Who told you that?' she asked.
'He told me himself, Thyrza, last night.'
She saw that Egremont was gazing at her; her eyes fell, and she became silent.
Egremont, in the course of the talk, wondered at his position in this little room. He knew that it was one of very few houses in Lambeth in which he could have been at his ease; perhaps there was not another. It seemed to him that he had thrown off a great deal that was artificial in behaviour and in habits of speech, that he had reverted to that self which came to him from his parents, and he felt better for the change. The air of simplicity in the room and its occupants was healthful; of natural refinement there was abundance, only affectation was missing. Would it have been a hardship if his father had failed to amass money, and he had grown up in such a home as this? He knew well enough that by going, say, next door he could pass into a domestic sphere of a very different kind, to the midst of a life compact of mean slavery, of ignorance, of grossness. This was enormously the exception. But his own home would have been not unlike this. Poverty could not have taken away his birthright of brains, and perhaps some such piece of luck might have fallen to him as had now to Gilbert Grail. Perhaps, too - why not, indeed! - he would have known Thyrza Trent. Certainly he would have seen her by chance here or there in Lambeth, and he - the young workman he might have been - assuredly would not have let her pass and forget her. Why, in that case, perchance he might have --
He had lost himself for a moment. Thyrza was standing before him with a cup of tea: he noticed that the cup shook a little in the saucer.
'Will you have some tea, sir?' she said.
Mrs. Grail had been perturbed somewhat on the question of refreshments. Gilbert decided that to offer a cup of tea would be the best thing; Egremont, he knew, dined late, and would not want anything to eat.
'Thank you, Miss Trent.'
She brought him sugar and milk. This was quite her own idea. 'Some people don't take sugar, some don't take milk; so you ought to let them help themselves to such things.' He took both. She noticed his hand, how shapely it was, how beautiful the finger-nails were. And then he looked at her with a smile of thanks, not more than of thanks. Could anyone convey thanks more graciously?
'I hope,' Egremont said, turning to Gilbert as he stirred his tea, 'that we shall get our first books on the shelves by the first day of next month.'
Grail made no reply, and all were silent for a little.
The visitor did not remain much longer. To the end he was animated in his talk, making his friends feel as much at their ease as he was himself. When he was about to depart, he said to Thyrza:
'I hope you will have a fine day to-morrow. There is promise of it.'
'Oh, I think it'll be fine,' she replied. 'It would be too cruel if it wasn't!'
Surely - thought Egremont as he smiled - to you if to any one the sky should show a glad face. How many a time thereafter did he think of those words - 'It would be too cruel!' She could not believe that fortune would be unkind to her; she had faith in the undiscovered day.
Returning to the upper room, Thyrza sat down as if she were very tired.
'No, I don't want anything to eat,' she said to Lydia. 'I shall go to bed at once. We must be up very early in the morning.'
Still she made no preparations. Her mirth and excitement were at an end. Her eyelids drooped heavily, and one of her hands hung down by the side of the chair. Lydia showed no extreme desire for an account of the proceedings below. Yes, Thyrza said, she had enjoyed herself. And presently:
'Mr. Egremont says he wants to begin putting up the books by the first of May.'
'Did he say when the house would be ready?'
Thyrza shook her head. Then:
'He told us about foreign countries. He's been everywhere.'
'Gilbert told me he had been to America.'
'Lyddy, is Canada the same as America?'
'I believe it is,' said the other doubtfully. 'I think it is a part. America's a very big country, you know.'
'What do you think Gilbert says? He says Mr. Ackroyd told him last night that he was going to Canada.'
Lydia gave no sign of special interest.
'I don't think he means it.'
'Perhaps he'll take Totty Nancarrow with him,' remarked Lydia, with a scarcely noticeable touch of irony.
The other did not reply, but she looked pained. Then Lydia declared that she too was weary. They talked little more, though it was a long time before either got to sleep.
Thyrza saw Grail in the breakfast hour next morning, and received his advice for the day. Bunce had already conveyed the little box of Bessie's clothing to the hospital; thence Thyrza and the child would go in a cab to Victoria.
She was at the hospital by nine o'clock. Bessie, a weakly, coughing child, who seemingly had but a short term of suffering before her, was at first very reticent with Thyrza, but when they were seated together in the train at Victoria, she brightened in the expectation of renewing her experiences of Mrs. Ormonde's home, and at length talked freely. Bessie was very old; she had long known the difficulties of a pinched home, and of her own ailments she spoke with a curious gravity as little child-like as could be.
'It's my chest as is weak,' she said. 'The nurse says it'll get stronger as I get older, but it's my belief that it's just the other way about. You never had a weak chest, had you, Miss Trent? You haven't that look. I dessay you're always well; I shouldn't mind if I was the same.' She laughed, and made herself cough. 'I can't see why everybody shouldn't be well. Father says the world's made wrong, and it seems to me that's the truth. Perhaps it looks different to you, Miss Trent.'
'You had better call me Thyrza, Bessie. That's my name.'
'Is it? Well, I don't mind, if you don't. I never knew anybody called Thyrza. But I dessay it's a lady's name. You're a lady, ain't you?'
'No, I'm not a lady. I go to work with Miss Nancarrow. You know her?'
'I can't say as I know her. She lives in the next room to us, but we don't often speak. But I remember now; I've seen yea on the stairs.'
'Miss Nancarrow has made friends with your brother and sister whilst you've been in the hospital.'
'Have she now! They didn't tell me about that when they come to see me last time. I suppose things is all upside down. By rights I'd ought to have gone home for a day or two, just to see that the room was clean. Mrs. Larrop comes in wunst a week, you know, she's a charwoman. But I haven't much trust in her; she's such a one for cat-licking. The children do make such a mess; I always tell them they'd think twice about coming in with dirty shoes if only they had the cleaning to see after.'
Then she began to talk of Mrs. Ormonde, and Thyrza encouraged her to tell all she could about that lady.
'I tell you what, Thyrza,' said Bessie, confidentially, 'when Nelly gets old enough to keep things straight and look after father, do you know what I shall do? I mean to go to Mrs. Ormonde and ask to be took on for a housemaid. That's just what 'ud suit me. My chest ain't so bad when I'm there, and I'd rather be one of Mrs. Ormonde's servants than work anywhere else. But then I perhaps shan't live long enough for that. It's a great thing for carrying people off, is a weak chest.'
Both grew excited as the train neared their destination. Bessie recalled the stations, and here and there an object by the way. It was Thyrza who felt herself the child.
The train entered the station. Bessie had her head at the window. She drew it back, exclaiming:
'There's Mrs. Ormonde! See, Thyrza! the lady in black!'
Thyrza looked timidly; that lady's face encouraged her. Mrs. Ormonde had seen Bessie, and was soon at the carriage door.
'So here you are again!' was her kindly greeting. 'Why, Bessie, you must have been spending all your time in growing!'
She kissed the child, whose thin face was coloured with pleasure.
'This is Miss Trent, mum,' said Bessie, pointing to her companion, who had descended to the platform. 'She's been so kind as to take care of me.'
Mrs. Ormonde turned quickly round.
'Miss Trent?' She viewed the girl with surprise which she found it impossible to conceal at once. Then she said to Thyrza: 'Arc you the young lady of whom I have heard as Mr. Grail's friend?'
'Yes, ma'am,' Thyrza replied modestly.
'Then how glad I am to see you! Come, let us get Bessie's box taken to the carriage.'
Mrs. Ormonde was not of those philanthropists who, In the midst of their well-doing, are preoccupied with the necessity of preserving the distinction between classes. She always fetched the children from the station in her own unpretending carriage. Her business was to make them happy, as the first step to making them well, and whilst they were with her she was their mother. There are plenty of people successfully engaged in reminding the poor of the station to which Providence has called them: the insignificant few who indulge a reckless warmth of heart really cannot be seen to do appreciable harm.
'Mrs. Ormonde, mum,' whispered Bessie, when they were seated in the carriage.
'What is it, Bessie?'
'Would you take us round by the front road? Miss Trent hasn't never seen the sea, and she'd like to as soon as she can; it's only natural.'
Mrs. Ormonde had cast one or two discreet glances at Thyrza. As she did so her smile subdued itself a little; a grave thought seemed to pass through her mind. She at once gave an order to the coachman in compliance with Bessie's request.
'Mr. Grail is quite well, I hope?' she said, feeling a singular embarrassment in addressing Thyrza.
Thyrza replied mechanically. To ride in an open carriage with a lady, this alone would have been an agitating experience; the almost painful suspense with which she waited for the first glimpse of the sea completed her inability to think or speak with coherence. Her eyes were fixed straight onwards. Mrs. Ormonde continued to observe her, occasionally saying something in a low voice to the child.
The carriage drove to the esplanade, and turned to pass along it in the westerly direction. The tide was at full; a loud surge broke upon the beach; no mist troubled the blue line of horizon. Mrs. Ormonde looked seawards, and her vision found a renewal in sympathy with the thought she had read on Thyrza's face.
You and I cannot remember the moment when the sense of infinity first came upon us; we have thought so much since then, and have assimilated so much of others' thoughts, that those first impressions are become as vague as the memory of our first love. But Thyrza would not forget this vision of the illimitable sea, live how long she might. She had scarcely heretofore been beyond the streets of Lambeth. At a burst her consciousness expanded in a way we cannot conceive. You know that she had no religion, yet now her heart could not contain the new-born worship. Made forgetful of all else by the passionate instinct which ruled her being, she suddenly leaned forward and laid her hand on Mrs. Ormonde's. The latter took and pressed it, smiling kindly.
Bessie, happy in her superior position, looked about her with a satisfied air. She sat with Mrs. Ormonde on the fore-seat; presently she leaned aside to look westward, and informed Thyrza that the promontory visible before them was Beachy Head. Thyrza had no response to utter.
The carriage turned inland again. Thyrza lost sight of the sea. As if she cared to look at nothing else, her eyes fell.
When they arrived at The Chestnuts, Mrs. Ormonde led her companions to an upper room, where Mrs. Mapper sat talking with two or three children.
'I think Bessie can have her old bed, can't she?' she said, after introducing Thyrza. 'I wonder whether she knows any of our children now? I dare say Miss Trent would like to rest a little.'
A few words were spoken to the matron apart, and Mrs. Ormonde withdrew. Half an hour later, Thyrza, after seeing the children and all that portion of the house which was theirs, was led by Mrs. Mapper to the drawing-room. The lady of the house was there alone; she invited her guest to sit down, and began to talk.
'Are you obliged to be home to-night? Couldn't you stay with us till to-morrow?'
Thyrza checked a movement.
'I promised Mr. Grail to be back before dark,' she said.
'Oh, but that will scarcely leave you any time at all. Is there any other need for you to return to-day? Suppose I telegraphed to say that I was keeping you - wouldn't Mr. Grail forgive me?'
'I think I might stay, if I could be back to-morrow by tea-time. I must go to work on Monday morning.'
Mrs. Ormonde sighed involuntarily. That work, that work: the consumer of all youth and joy!
'Unfortunately there's no train to-morrow that would help us.'
Thyrza longed to stay; the other could read her face well enough.
'There's an early train on Monday morning,' she continued doubtfully. 'Do you live with parents?'
'Oh, no, ma'am. My parents died a long time ago. I live with my sister. We two have a room to ourselves; it's in the same house where Mr. Grail lives: that's how I got to know him.'
'And is your sister older than yourself?'
'Yes, ma'am; four years older. Her name's Lydia. We've always kept together. When I'm married, she's coming to live with us.'
Mrs. Ormonde listened with ever deepening interest. She formed a picture of that elder sister. The words 'We've always kept together,' touched her inexpressibly; they bore so beautiful a meaning on Thyrza's lips.
'And would your sister Lydia scold me very much if I made you lose your Monday morning's work?' she asked, smiling.
'Oh, it's always the other way, ma'am. Lyddy's always glad when I get a holiday. But I never like her to have to go to work alone.'
'Well now, I shall telegraph to Lyddy, and then tomorrow I shall write a letter to her and beg her to forgive me. If I do so, do you think you could stay?'
'I - I think so, ma'am.'
'And Mr. Grail?'
'He's just as kind to me as Lyddy is.'
'Then I think we won't be afraid. The telegram shall go at once, so that if there were real need for your return, they would have time to reply.'
The message despatched, they talked till dinner-time. Fulfilment of joy soon put an end to Thyrza's embarrassment; she told all about her life and Lydia's, about their work, about Mr. Boddy, about Gilbert and his books. Mrs. Ormonde led her gently on, soothed by the music.
In the afternoon she decided to drive with Thyrza to the top of Beachy Head; on the morrow the sky might not be so favourable to the view. The children would go out in the usual way; she preferred to be alone with her visitor for a while.
'Will they have the telegraph yet?' Thyrza asked, as she again seated herself in the carriage.
'Oh, long since. We could have had an answer before now.'
Thyrza sighed with contentment, for she knew that Lyddy was glad on her behalf.
So now the keen breath of the sea folded her about and made warmth through her whole body; it sang in her ears, the eternal sea music which to infinite generations of mortals has been an inspiring joy. Upward, upward, on the long sweep of the climbing road, whilst landward the horizon retired from curve to curve off the wild Downs, and on the other hand a dark edge against the sky made fearful promise of precipitous shore. The great snow-mountains of heaven moved grandly on before the west wind, ever changing outline, meeting to incorporate mass with mass, sundering with magic softness and silence. The bay of Pevensey spread with graceful line its white fringe of breakers now low upon the strand, far away to the cliffs of Hastings.
'Hastings!' Thyrza exclaimed, when Mrs. Ormonde had mentioned the name. 'Is that where the battle of Hastings was?'
'A little further inland. You have read of that?'
'Gilbert - Mr. Grail is teaching me history. Yes, I know about Hastings.'
'And what country do you think you would come to, if you went right over the sea yonder?'
'That must be - really? - where William the Conqueror came from? That was Normandy, in France.'
'Yes, France is over there.'
No, it was too hard to believe. She murmured the name to herself. Gilbert had shown it her on the map, but how difficult to transfer that dry symbol into this present reality!
They left the carriage near the Coastguard's house, and walked forward to the brow of the great cliffs. Mrs. Ormonde took Thyrza's hand as they drew near. They stood there for a long time.
Two or three other people were walking about the Head. In talking, Mrs. Ormonde became aware that someone had approached her; she turned her head, and saw Annabel Newthorpe.
They shook hands quietly. Thyrza drew a little away.
'Are you alone?' Mrs. Ormonde asked.
'Yes, I have walked.'
'Who do you think this is?' Mrs. Ormonde murmured quickly. 'Mr. Grail's future wife. She has just brought one of my children down; I am going to keep her till Monday. Come and speak; the most loveable child!'
Thyrza and Annabel were presented to each other with the pleasant informality which Mrs. Ormonde so naturally employed. Each was impressed with the other's beauty; Thyrza felt not a little awe, and Annabel could not gaze enough at the lovely face which made such a surprise for her.
'Why did Mr. Egremont give me no suggestion of this?' she said to herself.
She had noticed, in drawing near, how intimately her friend and the stranger were talking together. Her arrival had disturbed Thyrza's confidence; she herself did not feel able to talk quite freely. So in a few minutes she turned and went by the footway along the edge of the height. Just before descending into a hollow which would hide her, she cast a look back, and saw that Thyrza's eyes were following her.
'But how could he speak of her and yet tell me nothing?'
His delicacy explained it, no doubt. He had not liked to say of the simple girl whom Grail was to marry that she was very beautiful. Annabel felt that most men would have been less scrupulous: it was characteristic of Egremont to feel a subtle propriety of that kind.
Annabel was at all times disposed to interpret Egremont's motives in a higher sense than would apply to the average man.
On her return, Thyrza had tea with Mrs. Mapper and the children, then went with them to the large room upstairs in which evenings were spent till the early bedtime. It was an ideal nursery, with abundant picture-books, with toys, with everything that could please a child's eye and engage a child's mind. There was a piano, and on this Mrs. Mapper sometimes played the kind of music that children would like. She taught them songs, moreover, and a singing evening was always much looked forward to. Saturday was always such; when the little choir had got a song perfect, Mrs. Ormonde was wont to come up and hear them sing it, making them glad with her praise.
It happened that to-night there was to be practising of a new song; Mrs. Mapper had chosen 'Annie Laurie,' and she began by playing over the air. One or two of the children knew it, but not the words; these, it was found, were always very quickly learnt by singing a verse a few times over.
'Do you know 'Annie Laurie,' Miss Trent?' Mrs. Mapper asked.
It was one of old Mr. Boddy's favourites; Thyrza had sung it to him since she was seven years old.
'Let us sing it together then, will you?'
They began. Thyrza was already thoroughly at home, and this music was an unexpected delight. After a line or two, Mrs. Mapper's voice sank. Thyrza stopped and looked inquiringly, meeting a wonder in the other's eyes. Mrs. Mapper was a woman of much prudence; she merely said:
'I find I've got a little cold. Would you mind singing it alone?'
So Thyrza sang the song through. A moment or two of quietness followed.
'Now I think you'll soon know it, children,' said Mrs. Mapper. 'Lizzie Smith, I see you've got it already. Miss Trent will be kind enough to sing the first verse again; you sing with her, Lizzie - and you too, Mary. That's a clever girl! Now we shall get on.'
The practising went on till all were able to join in fairly well. After that, Mrs. Mapper played the favourite dance tunes, and the children danced merrily. Whilst they were so enjoying themselves, Mrs. Ormonde came into the room. She had dined, and wanted Thyrza to come and sit with her, for she was alone. But first she had five minutes of real laughter and play with the children. They loved her, every one of them, and clung to her desperately when she said sue could stay no longer.
'Good-bye!' she said, waving her hand at the door.
'No, no!' cried several voices. 'There's 'good-night' yet, Mrs. Ormonde!'
'Why, of course there is,' she laughed; 'but that's no reason why I shouldn't say good-bye.'
She took Thyrza's hand and led her down.
'You shall have some supper with me afterwards,' she said 'The little ones have theirs now; but it's too early for you.'
If the drawing-room had been a marvel to Thyrza in the daylight, it was yet more so now that she entered it and found two delicately shaded lamps giving a rich uncertainty to all the beautiful forms of furniture and ornaments. She had thought the Grails' parlour luxurious. And the dear old easy-chair, now so familiar to her, how humble it was compared with this in which Mrs. Ormonde seated her! These wonders caused her no envy or uneasy desire. In looking at a glorious altarpiece, one does not feel unhappy because one cannot carry it off from the church and hang it up at home. Thyrza's mood was purely of admiration, and of joy in being deemed worthy to visit such scenes. And all the time she kept saying to herself, 'Another whole day! I shall be by the sea again tomorrow! I shall sleep and wake close by the sea!'
Presently Mrs. Ormonde had to absent herself for a few minutes.
'You heard what the children said about 'good-night.' I always go and see them as soon as they are tucked up in bed. I don't think they'd sleep if I missed.'
The kind office over, she spoke with Mrs. Mapper about the evening's singing.
'Did you know,' the latter asked, 'what a voice Miss Trent has?'
'She sings? I didn't know.'
'I was so delighted that I had to stop singing myself. I'm sure it's a wonderful voice.'
'Indeed! I must ask her to sing to me.'
She found Thyrza turning over the leaves of a volume of photographs. Without speaking, she sat down at the piano, and began to play gently the air of 'Annie Laurie.' Thyrza looked up, and then came nearer.
'You are fond of music?' said Mrs. Ormonde.
'Very fond. How beautiful your playing is!'
'To-morrow you shall hear Miss Newthorpe play; hers is much better. Will you sing this for me?'
When it was sung, she asked what other songs Thyrza knew. They were all, of course, such as the people sing; some of them Mrs. Ormonde did not know at all, but to others she was able to play an accompaniment. Her praise was limited to a few kind words. On leaving the piano, she was thoughtful.
At ten o'clock Mrs. Mapper came to conduct Thyrza to her bedroom.
'We have breakfast at half-past eight to-morrow,' Mrs. Ormonde said.
'If I am up in time,' Thyrza asked, 'may I go out before breakfast?'
'Do just as you like, my dear,' the other answered, with a smile. 'I want you to enjoy your visit.'
In spite of the strangeness of her room, and of the multitude of thoughts and feelings to which the day had given birth, Thyrza was not long awake. She passed into a dreamland where all she had newly learnt was reproduced and glorified. But the rising sun had not to wait long for the opening of her eyes. She sprang from bed and to the window, whence, how. ever, she could only see the tall chestnuts and a neighbouring cottage. The day was again fine; she dressed with nervous speed - there was no Lyddy to do her hair, for the very first time in her life - then went softly forth on to the landing. No one seemed to be stirring; she had no watch to tell her the time, but doubtless it was very early. Softly she began to descend the stairs, and at length recognised the door of the drawing-room. She did not like to enter: it was only Mrs. Ormonde's kindness that had given her a right to sit there the evening before. But the house-door would not be open yet, she feared. Just as she was reluctantly turning to go up and wait a little longer in her bedroom, a sound below at once startled and relieved her. Looking over the banisters, she saw a servant coming from one of the rooms on the ground floor. She hurried down. The servant looked at her with surprise.
'Good-morning!' she said. 'Can I get out of the house?'
'I'll open the door for you, Miss.'
'What time is it, please?'
'It isn't quite half-past six, Miss, You're an early riser.'
'Yes, I want to go out before breakfast. Please will you tell me which way goes to the sea?'
The servant gave her good-natured directions, and Thyrza was soon running along with a glimpse of blue horizon for guidance. She ran like a child, ran till the sharp morning air made her breathless, then walked until she was able to run again. And at length she was on the beach, down at length by the very edge of the waves. Here the breeze was so strong that with difficulty she stood against it, but its rude caresses were a joy to her. Each breaker seemed a living thing; now she approached timidly, now ran back with a delicious fear. She filled her hands with the smooth sea-pebbles; a trail of weed with the foam fresh on it was a great discovery. Then her eye caught a far-off line of smoke. That must be a steamer coming from a foreign country; perhaps from France, which was - how believe it? - yonder across the blue vast.
You have watched with interest some close-folded bud; one day all promise is shut within those delicate sepals, and on the next, for the fulness of time has come, you find the very flower with its glow and its perfume. So it sometimes happens that a human soul finds its season, and at a touch expands to wonderful new life.
Mrs. Ormonde perceived at breakfast that Thyrza desired nothing more than to be left to pass her day in freedom. So she gave her visitor a little bag with provision against seaside appetite, and let her go forth till dinner-time; then again till the hour of tea. In the evening Thyrza was again bidden to the drawing-room. She found Miss Newthorpe there.
'Come now, and tell us what you have been doing all day long,' Mrs. Ormonde said. 'Why, the sun and the wind have already touched your cheeks!'
'I have enjoyed myself,' Thyrza replied, quickly, seating herself near her new friend.
She could give little more description than that. Annabel talked with her, and presently, at Mrs. Ormonde's request, went to the piano. When the first notes had sounded, Thyrza let her head droop a little. Music such as this she had not imagined. When Annabel came back to her seat, she gazed at her, admiring and loving.
'Now will you sing us 'Annie Laurie'?' said Mrs. Ormonde. 'I'll play for you.'
'What is that child's future?' Mrs. Ormonde asked of Annabel, when Thyrza had left them together.
'Not a sad one, I think,' said Annabel, musingly. 'Happily, her husband will not be an untaught working man.'
'No, thank goodness for that! I suppose they will be married in two or three weeks. Her voice is a beautiful thing lost.'
'We won't grieve over that. Her own happiness is of more account. I do wish father could have seen her!'
'Oh, she must come to us again some day. Your father would have alarmed her too much. Haven't you felt all the time as if she were something very delicate, something to be carefully guarded against shocks and hazards? As I saw her from my window going out of the garden this morning, I felt a sort of fear; I was on the point of sending a servant to keep watch over her from a distance.
There was a silence, then Mrs. Ormonde murmured:
'I wonder whether she is in love with him?'
Annabel smiled, but said nothing.
'She told me that he is very kind to her. 'Just as kind as Lyddy,' she said. Indeed, who wouldn't be?'
'We have every reason to think highly of Mr. Grail,' Annabel remarked. 'He must be as exceptional in his class as she is.'
'Yes. But the exceptional people --'
Annabel looked inquiringly.
'Never mind! The world has beautiful things in it, and one of the most beautiful is hope.'
It was partly out of kindness to Thyrza that Totty Nancarrow had changed her mind about going to Eastbourne. Having seen her and mentioned the matter, Totty saw at once how eagerly Thyrza would accept such a chance. But it happened that within the same hour she saw Luke Ackroyd, and Luke had proposed a meeting on Saturday afternoon. Totty had no extreme desire to meet him, and yet - perhaps she might as well. He talked of going up the river to Battersea Park, as the weather was so fine.
So at three on Saturday, Totty stood by the landing-stage at Lambeth. In fact, she was there at least five minutes before the appointed time. But her punctuality was wasted. Ten minutes past three by Lambeth parish church, and no Mr. Ackroyd.
'Well, I call this nice!' Totty exclaimed to herself. 'Let him come now if he likes; he won't find me waiting for him. And a lot I care!'
She went off humming a tune and swinging her hands. On the Embankment she met a girl she knew. They went on into Westminster Bridge Road, and there came across another friend. It was decided that they should all go and have tea at Totty's. And before they reached Newport Street, yet another friend joined them. The more the merrier! Totty delighted in packing her tiny room as full as it would hold. She ran into Mrs. Bower's for a pot of jam. Who more mirthful now than Totty Nancarrow!
With subdued gossip and laughter all ran up the narrow staircase and into Totty's room. A fire had first of all to be lit; Totty was a deft hand at that; not a girl in Lambeth could start a blaze and have her kettle boiling in sharper time on a cold dark morning. But, after all, there would not be bread enough. Tilly Roach would be off for that. 'Mind you bring the over-weight!' the others screamed after her, and some current joke seemed to be involved in the injunction, for at once they all laughed as only work-girls can.
Tilly was back in no time. She was a little, slim girl, with the palest and shortest of gold hair, and a pretty face spoilt with freckles. As at all times, she had her pocket full of sweets, and ate them incessantly. As a rule, Tilly cannot have eaten less than a couple of pounds of lollipops every week, and doubtless would have consumed more had her pocket-money allowed it. The second of Totty's guests was Annie West, whom you know already, for she was at the 'friendly lead' when Thyrza sang; she was something of a scapegrace, constantly laughed in a shrill note, and occasionally had to be called to order. The third was a Mrs. Allchin, aged fifteen, a married woman of two months' date; her hair was cut across her forehead, she wore large eardrops, and over her jacket hung a necklace with a silver locket. Mrs. Allchin, called by her intimates 'Loo,' had the air of importance which became her position.
There were only two chairs in the room; the table had to be placed so that the bed could serve for sitting. Tablecloth there was none; when friends did her the honour of coming to tea, Totty spread a newspaper. The tea-service was, to say the least, primitive; four cups there were, but only two saucers survived, and a couple of teaspoons had to be shared harmoniously. No one ever gave a thought to such trifles at Totty Nancarrow's.
Whilst the kettle boiled, Annie West provided diversion of a literary kind. She had recently purchased a little book in cover of yellow paper, which, for the sum of one penny, purported to give an exhaustive description of 'Charms, Spells, and Incantations;' on the back was the picture of a much-bejewelled Moorish maiden, with eyes thrown up in prophetic ecstasy; above ran the legend, 'Wonderfully mysterious and peculiar.' The work included, moreover, 'a splendid selection of the best love songs.'
'It's cheap at a penny,' was Miss West's opinion.
She began by reading out an infallible charm for the use of maidens who would see in dreams their future husband. It was the 'Nine-key Charm.'
''Get nine small keys, they must all be your own by begging or purchase (borrowing will not do, nor must you tell what you want them for), plait a three-plaited band of your own hair, and tie them together, fastening the ends with nine knots. Fasten them with one of your garters to your left wrist on going to bed, and bind the other garter round your head; then say:
This must be done on the eve of St. Peter's, and is an old charm used by the maidens of Rome in ancient times, who put great faith in it.''
'When is the eve of St. Peter's?' asked Tilly Roach. 'Totty, you're a Catholic, you ought to know.'
'Don't bother me with your rubbish!' cried Totty.
'It ain't rubbish at all,' retorted Annie West. 'Now didn't you see your husband, Loo, with a card charm before you'd ever really set eyes on him?'
'Course I did,' assented Mrs. Allchin, aged fifteen.
'Here's another book I'm going to get,' pursued Annie, referring to an advertisement on the cover. 'It tells you no end of things - see here!' 'How to bewitch your enemies,' 'How to render yourself invisible,' 'How to grow young again,' 'How to read sealed letters,' 'How to see at long distances,' and heaps more. 'Price one and sixpence, or, post free, twenty stamps.''
'Don't be a fool and waste your money!' was Totty's uncompromising advice. 'It's only sillies believes things like that.'
'Totty ain't no need of charms!' piped Tilly, with sweets in her mouth. 'She knows who she's going to marry.'
'Do I, miss?' Totty exclaimed, scornfully. 'Do you know as much for yourself, I wonder?'
'Oh, Tilly's a-going to marry the p'liceman with red hair as stands on the Embankment!' came from Mrs. Allchin; whereupon followed inextinguishable laughter.
But they wore determined to tease Totty, and began to talk from one to the other about Luke Ackroyd, not mentioning his name, but using signs and symbols.
'If you two wait for husbands till I'm married,' said Totty at length to the laughing girls, 'you've a good chance to die old maids. I prefer to keep my earnings for my own spending, thank you.'
'When's Thyrza Trent going to be married?' asked Mrs. Allchin. 'Do you know, Totty?'
'In about a fortnight, I think.'
'Is the bands puts up?'
'They're going to be married at the Registry Office.'
'Well, I never!' cried Annie West. 'You wouldn't catch me doing without a proper wedding! I suppose that's why Thyrza won't talk about it. But I believe he's a rum sort of man, isn't he?'
Nobody could reply from personal acquaintance with Gilbert Grail. Totty did not choose to give her opinion.
'I say,' she exclaimed, 'we've had enough about marriages. Tilly, make yourself useful, child, and cut some bread.'
For a couple of hours at least gossip was unintermittent. Then Mrs. Allchin declared that her husband would be 'making a row' if she stayed from home any later. Tilly Roach took leave at the same time. Totty and Miss West chatted a little longer, then put on their hats to have a ramble in Lambeth Walk.
They had not gone many paces from the house when they were overtaken by some one, who said:
'Totty! I want to speak to you.'
Totty would not look round. It was Ackroyd's voice.
'I say, Totty!'
But she walked on. Ackroyd remained on the edge of the pavement. In a minute or two he saw that Miss Nancarrow was coming towards him unaccompanied.
'Oh, it's you, is it?' she said. 'What do you want, Mr. Ackroyd?'
'Why didn't you come this afternoon?'
'Well, I like that! Why didn't you come?'
'I was a bit late. I really couldn't help it, Totty. Did you go away before I came?'
'Why, of course I did. How long was I to wait?'
'I'm very sorry. Let's go somewhere now. I've been waiting about for more than an hour on the chance of seeing you.'
He mentioned the chief music-hall of the neighbourhood.
'I don't mind,' said Totty. 'But I can't go beyond sixpence.'
'Oh, all right! I'll see to that.'
'No, you won't. I pay for myself, or I don't go at all. That's my rule.'
'As you like.'
The place of entertainment was only just open; they went in with a crowd of people and found seats. The prevailing odours of the hall were stale beer and stale tobacco; the latter was speedily freshened by the fumes from pipes. Ackroyd ordered a glass of beer, and deposited it on a little ledge before him, an arrangement similar to that for different purposes in a church pew; Totty would have nothing.
Ackroyd had changed a good deal during the last few months. The coarser elements of his face had acquired a disagreeable prominence, and when he laughed, as he did constantly, the sound lacked the old genuineness. To-night he was evidently trying hard to believe that he enjoyed the music-hall entertainment; in former days he would have dismissed anything of the kind with a few contemptuous words. When the people about him roared at imbecilities unspeakable, he threw back his head and roared with them; when they stamped, he raised as much dust as any one. Totty had no need to affect amusement; her tendency to laughter was such that very little sufficed to keep her in the carelessly merry frame of mind which agreed with her, and on the whole it was not disagreeable to be sitting by Luke Ackroyd; she glanced at him surreptitiously at times.
He drank two or three glasses of beer, then felt a need of stronger beverage. Totty remonstrated with him: he laughed, and drank on out of boastfulness. At length Totty would countenance it no longer; after a useless final warning, she left her place and pressed through the crowd to the door. Ackroyd sprang up and followed her. His face was flushed, and grew more so in the sudden night air.
'What's the matter?' he said, putting his arm through the girl's. 'You're not going to leave me in that way, Totty? Well, let's walk about then.'
'Look here, Mr. Ackroyd,' began Totty, 'I'm surprised at you! It ain't like a man of your kind to go muddling his head night after night, in this way.'
'I know that as well as you do, Totty. See!' He made her stop, and added in a lower voice, 'Say you'll marry me, and I'll stop it from to-night.'
'I've told you already I shan't do nothing of the kind. So don't be silly! You can be sensible enough if you like, and then I can get along well enough with you.'
'Very well, then I'll drink for another week, and then be off to Canada.'
'You'd better go at once, I should think.'
She had moved a little apart from him. Just then a half-drunken fellow came along the pavement, and in a freak caught Totty about the waist. Ackroyd was in the very mood for an incident of this kind. In an instant he had planted so direct a blow that the fellow staggered back into the gutter, Totty with difficulty preventing herself from being dragged with him. The thoroughfare was crowded, street urchins ran together with yells of anticipatory delight, and maturer loafers formed the wonted ring even before the man assaulted had recovered himself. Then came the play of fists; Ackroyd from the first had far the best of it, but the other managed to hold his ground.
And the result of it was that in something less than a quarter of an hour from his leaving the music-hall, Ackroyd found himself on the way to the police-station, his adversary following in the care of a second constable, all the way loudly accusing him of being the assailant.
Totty walked in the rear of the crowd; she had been frightened by the scene of violence, and there were marks of tears on her cheeks. She entered the station, eager to get a hearing for a plain story. Ackroyd turned and saw her.
'It's no good saying anything now,' he said to her. 'This blackguard has plenty more lies ready. Go to the house and tell my brother-in-law, will you? I dare say he'll come and be bail.'
She went at once, and ran all the way to Paradise Street, so that when in reply to her knock Mrs. Poole appeared at the door, she had to wait yet a moment before her breath would suffice for speaking. She did not know Mrs. Poole.
'I've got a message from Mr. Ackroyd for Mr. Poole,' she said.
The other was alarmed.
'What's happened now?' she inquired. 'I'm Mrs. Poole, Mr. Ackroyd's sister.'
Totty lowered her voice, and explained rapidly what had come to pass. Mrs. Poole eyed her throughout with something more than suspicion.
'And who may you be, if you please?' she asked at the end.
'I'm Miss Nancarrow.'
'I'm not much wiser. Thank you. I'll let Mr. Poole know.'
She closed the door. Totty, thus unceremoniously shut out, turned away; she felt miserable, and the feeling was so strange to her that before she had gone many steps she again began to cry She had understood well enough the thought expressed in Mrs. Poole's face; it was gratuitous unkindness, and just now she was not prepared for it. There was much of the child in her still, for all her years of independence in the highways and by-ways of Lambeth, and, finding it needful to cry, she let her tears have free course, only now and then dashing the back of her hand against the corner of her lips as she walked on. Why should the woman be so ready to think evil of her? She had done nothing whatever to deserve it, nothing; she had kept herself a good girl, for all that she lived alone and liked to laugh. At another time most likely she would have cared something less than a straw for Mrs. Poole's opinion of her, but just now - somehow - well, she didn't know quite how it was. Why would Luke keep on drinking in that way, and oblige her to run out of the music-ball? It was his fault, the foolish fellow. But he had been quick enough to defend her; a girl would not find it amiss to have that arm always at her service. And in the meantime he was in the police cell.
Mrs. Poole, excessively annoyed, went down to the kitchen. Her husband sat in front of the fire, a long clay pipe at his lips, his feet very wide apart on the fender; up on the high mantelpiece stood a half finished glass of beer. Though he still held the pipe, he was nodding; as his wife entered, his head fell very low.
'Jim!' exclaimed his wife, as if something had been added to her annoyance.
'Eh? Well, Jane? - eh?'
'Then you will set your great feet on the fender! The minute I turn my back, of course! If you're too lazy to take your boots off, you must keep your heels under the chair. I won't have my fender scratched, so I tell you!'
He was a large-headed man, sleepy in appearance at the best of times, but enormously good-natured. He bent down in a startled way to see if his boots had really done any harm.
'Well, well, I won't do it again, Jenny,' he mumbled.
'Of course, I wonder how often you've said that. As it happens, it's as well you have got your boots on still. There's a girl o' some kind just come to say as Luke's locked up for fightin' in the street. He sent for you to bail him out.'
'Why, there! Tut-tut-tut! What a fellow that is! Fightin'? Why now, didn't I tell him this afternoon as he looked like pickin' a quarrel wi' somebody? But, I say, Jane, it's a low-life kind o' thing for to go a-fightin' in the streets.'
'Of course it is. What'll he come to next, I wonder? The sooner he gets off to Canada, the better, I sh'd say. But he'll not go; he talks an' talks, an' it's all just for showin' off.'
Mr. Poole had risen.
'Bail? Why, I don't know nothin' about bail, Jane! How d'you do it? I hadn't never nothing to do with folks as got locked up.'
'I don't suppose you never had, Jim, till now.'
'Nay, hang it, Jenny, I wasn't for alludin' to that! Give me my coat. How much money have we in the house? I've sixpence 'apenny i' my pocket.'
'It ain't done with money; you'll have to sign something, I think.'
'All right. But I'll read it first, though. Who was it as come, did you say?'
'Nay, I don't know. She called herself Miss Nancarrow. I didn't care to have much to say to her.'
Mrs. Poole was a kindly disposed woman, but, like her average sisters, found charity hard when there was ever so slight an appearance against another of her sex. We admire this stalwart virtue, you and I, reverencing public opinion; all the same, charity has something to be said for it.
'Miss Nancarrow, eh?' said Poole, dragging on his big overcoat. 'Don't know her. Kennington Road station, is it?'
'You'd better finish your beer, Jim.'
'So I will. Have a bit o' supper ready for the lad.'
Totty walked as far as the police-station. She could not bring herself to enter and make inquiries; that look of Mrs. Poole's would be hard to bear from men. Her tears were dry now; she stood reading the notices on the board. A man had deserted his wife and left her chargeable to the parish; there was a reward for his apprehension, 'That's the woman's fault,' Totty said to herself, 'She's made his home miserable for him. If I had a husband, I don't think he'd want to run away from me. If he did, well, I should say, 'good riddance.' Catch me setting the p'lice after him! The body of a child had been found; a woman answering to a certain description was wanted. 'Poor thing!' thought Totty. 'She's more likely to pity than to blame. They shouldn't take her if I could help it.' So she commented on each notice, in accordance with her mood.
It was very cold. She had no gloves on, and her hands were getting quite numb. Would Mr. Poole answer the summons? If not, Luke would, she supposed, remain in the cell all night. It would be cold enough there, poor fellow!
She had waited about twenty minutes, when a large-headed man in a big overcoat came up, and, after eyeing the edifice from roof to pavement, ascended the steps and entered.
'I shouldn't wonder if that's him,' murmured Totty. And she waited anxiously.
In a quarter of an hour, the man appeared again, and after him came - oh yes, it was Luke! He had his eyes on the ground. The rescuer put his arm in Luke's, and they walked off together.
He had not seen her, and she was disappointed. She followed at a short distance behind them. The large-headed man spoke occasionally, but Ackroyd seemed to make brief reply, if any. Their way took them along Walnut Tree Walk; Totty saw that, in passing the house where Lydia and Thyrza lived, Luke cast a glance at the upper windows; probably he knew nothing of Thyrza's absence at Eastbourne. They turned into Lambeth Walk, then again into Paradise Street, Totty still a little distance in the rear. At their house, they paused. Luke seemed to be going further on, and, to the girl's surprise, he did so, whilst Mr. Poole entered.
He turned to the left, this time into Newport Street. Totty felt a strange tightness at her chest, for all at once she guessed what his purpose was.
It was still only half-past ten; people were moving about. Newport Street has only one inhabited side; the other is formed by the railway viaduct, the arches of which are boarded up and made to serve for stables, warehouses, workshops. Moreover, the thoroughfare is very badly lighted; on the railway side one can walk along at night-time without risk of recognition. Totty availed herself of this gloom, and kept nearly opposite to Luke. He stopped before her house, hesitated, was about to approach the door. Then Totty - no stranger being near - called softly across the street:
He turned at once, and came over.
'Why, is that you?' he said. 'What are you doing there, Totty?'
'Oh, nothing. So they've let you go?'
She spoke indifferently. It had been on her tongue to say that she had followed from the police-station, but the other words came instead.
'I shall have to turn up on Monday morning,' Luke replied.
'What a shame! Did they keep that man?'
'Yes. They kept us both. He kept swearing I'd an old grudge against him, and that he'd done nothing at all. The blackguard had the impudence to charge me with assault; so I charged him too. Then that constable said he'd had us both in charge before for drunk and disorderly. Altogether, it wasn't a bad lying-match.'
'Why do you run the chance of getting into such rows?'
'Well, I like that, Totty! Was I to let him insult you and just stand by?'
'Oh, I don't mean that. But it wouldn't have happened at all but for you going on drinking - you know that very well, Mr. Ackroyd.'
'I suppose it wouldn't. It doesn't matter. I just wanted to see you'd got home all right. Good-night!'
'Good-night! Mind you get home safe, that's all.'
She turned away. He turned away. But he was back before she had crossed the street.
'I say, Totty!'
'What is it?'
'You haven't told me what you were doing, standing here.'
'I don't see as it matters to you, Mr. Ackroyd.'
'No, I suppose it doesn't. Well, good-night!'
Each again turned to depart; again Ackroyd came hack.
'What is it, Mr. Ackroyd?' she exclaimed, fretfully.
'I can't for the life of me make out what you were doing standing there.'
'I don't see as it's any business of yours, Mr. Ackroyd.'
'Still, I'd rather you told me. I suppose you were waiting for somebody?'
'If you must know - yes, I was.'
'H'm, I thought so. Well, I won't stop to be in the way.'
'I say, Mr. Ackroyd!'
'There's a notice outside the station as says a man has deserted his wife.'
'Is there? How do you know?'
'I read it.'
'Oh, you've been waiting there, have you?'
'And another thing. It wasn't no use you looking up at Thyrza Trent's window. She's away.'
'How do you know I looked up?'
He came nearer, a smile on his face. Totty averted her eyes.
'I suppose it wasn't me you were waiting for, Totty?'
She said nothing.
'Give me a kiss, Totty.'
'I'm sure I shan't, Mr. Ackroyd!'
'Then let me take one.'
She made no resistance.
'When, Totty?' he whispered, drawing her near.
'Next Christmas, if you haven't taken a drop too much before then. If I find out you have - it's no good you coming after Totty Nancarrow.'
She walked with him to the end of the street, then watched him to his house. She was pleased; she was ashamed; she was afraid. Turning to go home, she crossed herself and murmured something.
Lydia had a little rule of self-discipline which deserved to be, and was, its own reward. If ever personal troubles began to worry her she diligently bent her thoughts upon someone for whose welfare she was anxious, and whom she might possibly aid. The rule had to submit to an emphatic exception; the person to be thought of must be any one save that particular one whose welfare she especially desired, and whom she might perchance have aided if she had made a great endeavour. However, the rule itself had become established long before this exception was dreamt of. Formerly she was wont to occupy her mind with Thyrza. Now that her sister seemed all but beyond need of anxious guarding, and that the necessity for applying the rule was greater than ever before, Lydia gave her attention to Mr. Boddy.
The old man had not borne the winter very well; looking at him, Lydia could not help observing that he stooped more than was his habit, and that his face was more drawn. He did his best to put a bright aspect on things when he talked with her, but there were signs that he found it increasingly difficult to obtain sufficient work. A few months ago she would have had no scruple in speaking freely on the subject to Mary Bower, or even to Mrs. Bower, and so learning from them whether the old man paid his rent regularly and had enough food. But from Mary she was estranged - it seemed as if hopelessly - and Mrs. Bower had of late been anything but cordial when Lydia went to the shop. The girl observed that Mr. Boddy was now never to be found seated in the back parlour: she always had to go up to his room. She could not bring herself to mention this to him, or indeed to say anything that would suggest her coolness with the Bowers. Still, it was all tacitly understood, and it made things very uncomfortable.
She was still angry with Mary. Every night she chid herself for doing what she had never done before - for nourishing unkindness. She shed many tears in secret. But forgiveness would not grow in her heart. She thought not seldom of the precepts she had heard at chapel, and - curiously - they by degrees separated themselves from her individual resentment; much she desired to make them her laws, for they seemed beautiful to her conscience. Could she but receive that Christian spirit, it would be easy to go to Mary and say, 'I have been wrong; forgive me!' The day was not yet come.
So she had to turn over plans for helping the poor old man who long ago had so helped her and Thyrza. Of course she thought of the possibility of his coming to live in Thyrza's house; yet how propose that? Thyrza had so much to occupy her; it was not wonderful that she took for granted Mr. Boddy's well-being. And would it be justifiable to impose a burden of this kind upon the newly-married pair? To be sure she could earn enough to pay for the little that Mr. Boddy needed. Thyrza had almost angrily rejected the idea that her sister should pay rent in the new house; payment for board she would only accept because Lydia declared that if it were not accepted she would live elsewhere. So there would remain a margin for the old man's needs. But his presence in the house was the difficulty. It might be very inconvenient, and in any ease such a proposal ought to come from Gilbert first of all. The old man, moreover, was very sensitive on the point involved; such a change would have to be brought about with every delicacy. Still, it must come to that before long.
Perhaps the best would be to wait until Thyrza was actually married, and discover how the household arrangements worked. Thyrza herself would then perhaps notice the old man's failing strength.
Lydia went to see him on Sunday afternoon. The bright day suggested to her that she should take him out for a walk. She had waited until Mary would be away at the school. Mr. Bower lay on the sofa snoring: the after-smell of roast beef and cabbage was heavy in the air of the room. Mrs. Bower would have also slept but for the necessity of having an eye to the shop, which was open on Sunday as on other days; her drowsiness made her irritable, and she only muttered as Lydia went through to the staircase. Lydia had come this way for the sake of appearances; she resolved that on the next occasion she would ring Mr. Boddy's bell at the side door. Upstairs, the old man was reading his thumbed Bible. He never went to a place of worship, but read the Bible on Sunday without fail.
He was delighted to go out into the sunshine.
'And when did the little one get back?' he asked, as he drew out his overcoat - the Christmas gift - from a drawer in which it was carefully folded.
'Why, what do you think? She won't be back till tomorrow. Yesterday, when I got back from work, there was a telegraph waiting for me. It was from the lady at Eastbourne, Mrs. Ormonde, and just said she was going to keep Thyrza till Monday, because it would do her good. How she will be enjoying herself!
They left the house by the private door and went in the direction of the river. Lydia ordinarily walked at a good pace; now she accommodated her steps to those of her companion. Her tall shapely figure made that of the old man look very decrepit. When he had anything of importance to say, Mr. Boddy came to a stand, and Lydia would bend a little forward, listening to him so attentively that she was quite unaware of the glances of those who passed by. So they got to the foot of Lambeth Bridge.
'We mustn't go too far,' Lydia said, 'or you'll be tired, grandad. Suppose we walk a little way along the Embankment. It's too cold, I'm afraid, to sit down. But isn't it nice to have sunshine? How that child must be enjoying herself, to be sure! She was almost crazy yesterday morning before she got off; I'm certain she didn't sleep not two hours in the night. It's very kind of that lady to keep her, isn't it? But everybody is kind to Thyrza, they can't help being.'
'No more they can, Lyddy; no more they can. But there's somebody else as I want to see enjoying herself a little. When 'll your turn come for a bit of a holiday, my dear? You work year in year out, and you're so quiet over it any one 'ud forget as you wanted a rest just like other people.'
'We shall see, grandad. Wait till the summer comes, and Thyrza's well settled down, and then who knows but you and me may run away together for a day at the seaside! I'm going to be rich, because they won't let me pay anything for my room. We'll keep that as a secret to ourselves.'
'Well, well,' said the old man, chuckling from sheer pleasure in her affection, 'there's no knowin'. I'd like to go to the seaside once more, and I'd rather you was with me than any one else. We always find something to talk about, I think, Lyddy. And 'taint with everybody I care to talk nowadays. It's hard to find people as has the same thoughts. But you and me, we remember together, don't we, Lyddy? Now, do you remember one night as there come a soldier into the shop, a soldier as wanted to buy --'
'A looking-glass!' Lydia exclaimed. 'I know! I remember!'
'A looking-glass! And when he'd paid for it, he took up his stick an' smashed the glass right in the middle, then walked off with it under his arm!'
'Why, what years it must be since I thought of that, grandad! And I ran away, frightened!'
'I was frightened myself too. And we never could understand it! Last night, when I was lying awake, that soldier came back to me, and I laughed so; and I thought, I'll ask Lyddy to-morrow if she remembers that.'
They both laughed, then pursued their walk.
'Why look,' said Mr. Boddy presently, 'here's Mr. Ackroyd a-comin' along!'
Lydia had already seen him; that was why she had become silent.
'You're not going to stop, are you, grandad?' she asked, under her breath.
'Why no, my dear? Not if you don't wish.'
'I'd rather not.'
Ackroyd was walking with his hands in his pockets, looking carelessly about him. He recognised the two at a little distance, and drew one hand forth. Till he got quite near he affected not to have seen them; then, without a smile, he raised his hat, and walked past, his pace accelerated. Lydia, also with indifferent face, just bent to the greeting. Mr. Boddy had given a friendly nod.
There was silence between the companions, then Lydia said:
'I've thought it better, grandad, not to - not to be quite the same with Mr. Ackroyd as I used to be.'
'Yes, yes, Lyddy; I understand, There's a deal of talk about him. I'm sorry. He's done me more than one good turn, and I hope he'll get straight again yet. I'm afraid, my dear, as - you know - the disappointment --'
Lydia interrupted with firmness.
'That's no excuse at all - not a bit! If he really felt the disappointment so much he ought to have borne it like a man. Other people have as much to bear. I never thought he was a man of that kind, never! We won't say anything more about him.'
Their conversation so lightened the way that they reached Westminster Bridge, and returned by the road which runs along the rear of the hospital.
'You won't come in, Lyddy?' said the old man, when they were near the shop again.
'Not to-day, grandad. I'm going to tea with Mrs. Grail and Gilbert, because Thyrza's away.'
He acquiesced, trying to conceal the sadness he felt. Lydia kissed his cheek, and left him.
All through tea in the Grails' parlour the talk was of Thyrza. How was she passing her time? Was it as fine at Eastbourne as here in London? What sort of a lady was Mrs. Ormonde? And when the three drew chairs about the fire, Gilbert had something of moment to communicate, something upon which he had resolved since Thyrza's departure.
'Lyddy,' he began, 'mother and I think Thyrza had better not go to work again. As she is going to miss to-morrow morning, it'll be a good opportunity for making the change. Isn't it better?'
Lydia did not reply at once. Such a decided step as this reminded her how near the day was when, though they would still be near to each other, Thyrza and she must in a sense part. The thought was always a heavy one; she did not willingly entertain it.
'Do you think,' she asked at length, 'that Thyrza will feel she ought to stay at home?'
'I think she will, when I've spoken to her about it. We want you both to have your meals with us. Thyrza can help mother, and she'll have more time for her reading. Of course you must be just as much together as you like, but it would be pleasant if you would come down here to meals. Will you do us that kindness, Lyddy?'
'But,' Lydia began, doubtfully. Mrs. Grail interrupted her:
'Now I know what you're going to say, my dear, It isn't nice of you, Lyddy, if you spoil this little plan we've made. Just for the next three weeks! After that you can be as independent as you please; yes, my dear, just as proud as you please. There's a great deal of pride in you, you know, and I don't like you the worse for it.'
'I don't think I'm proud at all,' said Lydia, smiling and reddening a little. 'If Thyrza agrees, then I will. Though I --'
'There now, that's all we want,' interposed the old lady. 'That's very good of you.'
By the first post in the morning arrived a letter addressed to 'Miss Trent,' bearing the Eastbourne post-mark. Lydia for a moment had a great fear, but, when she had torn the envelope open, the first lines put her at rest. It was Mrs. Ormonde who wrote, and in words which made Lydia feel very happy. With the exception of a line once or twice from Mary Bower, she had never received a letter in her life; she was very proud of the honour. Gilbert had just come home for breakfast, and all rejoiced over the news of Thyrza.
It was hard for Lydia to sit through her morning at the workroom. Thyrza was to be at home by twelve o'clock. As soon as the dinner-hour struck, Lydia flung her work aside, and was in Walnut Tree Walk in less time than it had ever before taken her. Instinct told her that the child would be waiting upstairs alone, and not in the Grails' room. She flew up. Thyrza rose from a chair and met her.
Not, however, with the outburst of childish rapture which Lydia had anticipated. Their parts were reversed. When the elder sister sprang forward, breathless with her haste, unable to utter anything but broken terms of endearment, Thyrza folded her in her arms, and, without a spoken word, kissed her with grave tenderness. Her cheeks had the most unwonted colour; her eyes gleamed, and as Lydia's caresses continued, glistened with moisture.
'Dear Lyddy!' she murmured. A tear formed upon her eyelashes, and her voice made trembled music. 'Dear sister! You're glad to see me again?'
'It seems an age, my own darling! You can't think what Sunday was like to me without you. And how well you look, my beautiful! See what a letter I've had from Mrs. Ormonde. Do tell me what she's like! How did she come to ask you if you'd stay! To think of you saying I should be cross with her! But of course that was only fun. My dear one! And what's the sea like? Were you on the shore again this morning?'
'How many questions does that make, I wonder, Lyddy?' Thyrza said, with a smile still much graver than of wont. 'I shan't tell you anything till you've had dinner. It's all ready for you downstairs.'
'You know what they want us to do?'
'Oh, I've talked it all over with Mrs. Grail. I don't think we ought to refuse, Lyddy. And so I'm not to go to work any more? I wish it was the same for you, dear. Shall you find it very hard to go alone?'
'Hard? Not I! Why, whatever should I do with myself if I stayed at home? It's different with you; you must learn all you can, so as to be able to talk to Gilbert.'
'Come to dinner!'
Lydia paused at the door.
'What has come to you, Thyrza?' she asked, looking in her sister's face. 'You're not the same, somehow. Oh, how did you manage to do your own hair? But there's something different in you, Blue-eyes.'
'Is there? Yes, perhaps. Oh, we've a deal to talk about to-night, Lyddy!'
'But Gilbert 'll want you to-night.'
'No. That must be to-morrow.'
And so it was. When all had sat together for an hour at Gilbert's late meal, the sisters went up to their room. Gilbert understood this perfectly well. The next evening would be his.
When it came, Mrs. Grail made an excuse to go and sit with Lydia. Thyrza had her easy-chair; Gilbert was at a little distance. The privileges he asked were very few. Sometimes, when Thyrza and he were alone, he would bold her hand for a minute, and at parting he kissed her, but more of acted tenderness than that he did not allow himself. To-night, whilst she was speaking, he gazed at her continuously. He too observed the change of which Lydia had at once become aware. Thyrza seemed to have grown older in those two days. Her very way of sitting was marked by a maturer dignity, and in her speech it was impossible not to be struck with the self-restraint, the thoughtful choice of words, which had taken the place of her former impulsiveness.
She dwelt much upon the delight she had received from Miss Newthorpe's playing. That had clearly made a great impression upon her.
'There was something she played, Gilbert, that told just what I felt when I first saw the sea. Do you know what I mean? Does music ever seem to speak to you in that way? It's really as if it spoke words.'
'I understand you very well, Thyrza,' he answered, in a subdued voice. And he added, his eyes brightening: 'Shall I take you some night to a concert, a really good concert, at one of the large halls?'
'Yes, I will. I'll find out from the newspaper, and we'll go together.'
She looked at him gratefully, but did not speak. As she remained silent, he drew his chair nearer and held his hand for hers. She gave it, without meeting his look.
'Thyrza, I heard from Mr. Egremont this morning. He wants to know if I can be ready to begin at the library on May 7, that's a Monday. It won't be opened then, but we shall be able to begin arranging the books. The house will be ready before the end of this month. Will you come and be married to me three weeks from to-day?'
'Yes, Gilbert, I will.'
No flush, but an extreme pallor came upon her face.
He felt a coldness in her hand.
'Then we shall go for a week to the seaside again,' he continued, his voice uncertain, 'and be back in time to get our house in order before the 7th of May.'
She still did not look at him. He released her hand, and went on in a more natural tone:
'I had a letter from my brother this morning, as well. He'll have to come to London on business in about a month, he says; so I hope we shall be able to have him stay with us.'
'I hope so.'
She spoke mechanically, and then followed a rather long silence. Both were lost in thought. Nor did the conversation renew itself after this, for Thyrza seemed to have no more to tell of her Eastbourne experiences, and Gilbert found it enough to sit near her at times searching her face for the meaning which was new-born in it.
She rose at length, and, when they had exchanged a few words with regard to her occupations now that she would remain at home, Thyrza approached him to say good-night. Instead of bending to kiss her at once, he held her hand in both his and said:
'Thyrza, look at me.'
She did so. His hands were trembling, and his features worked nervously.
'You have never said you love me,' he continued, just above a whisper. 'Will you say that now?'
For an instant she looked down, then raised her eyes again, and breathed:
'I love you, Gilbert.'
'I don't think words were ever spoken that sounded sweeter than those!'
She spoke again, with an earnestness unlike anything he had ever seen in her, quite different from that which had inspired similar words when first she pledged herself to him.
'Gilbert, I will try with all my strength to be a good wife to you! I will!'
'And I hope, Thyrza, that the day when I fail in perfect love and kindness to you may be the last of my life!'
She raised her face, For the first time he put his arms about her and kissed her passionately.
Mrs. Grail said good-night and went downstairs as soon as Thyrza appeared. Thyrza seated herself and pressed a hand against her side; her heart beat painfully.
'Why there!' Lydia exclaimed of a sudden. 'She's left the photographs!'
'What photographs?' Thyrza asked.
Lydia took from the table an envelope which contained some dozen cartes-de-visite. They were all the portraits which Mrs. Grail and her son possessed, and the old lady was very fond of looking over them and gossiping about them. She had brought them up to-night because she anticipated an evening of especial intimacy with Lydia.
Thyrza held out her hand for them. She knew them all, including the latest addition, which was a photograph of Walter Egremont. Egremont had given it to Grail about three weeks ago; it was two years old. She turned them out upon her lap.
'I think I'd better take them down now, hadn't I?' said Lydia.
'I wouldn't trouble till morning,' Thyrza answered, in a tired voice.
Two lay exposed before her: that of Gilbert, taken six years ago. and that of Egremont. Lydia, looking over her shoulder, remarked:
'What a boy Mr. Egremont looks, compared with Gilbert!'
Thyrza said nothing.
'Come, dear, put them in the envelope, and let me take them down.'
'Oh, never mind till morning, Lyddy!'
The voice was rather impatient.
'But I'm afraid Mrs. Grail 'll remember, and have the trouble of coming up.'
'She won't think it worth while. And I want to look at them.'
'Oh, very well, dear.'
The two unlike faces continued to lie uppermost.
Whilst the repairs were going on in the house behind the school, the old caretaker still lived there. Egremont found that she had in truth nowhere else to go, and as it was desirable that someone should remain upon the premises, he engaged her to do so until the Grails entered into possession.
As soon as painters, plasterers, and paperhangers were out of the way, Grail and Thyrza went to the house to decide what furniture it would be necessary to buy. The outlay was to be as little as possible, for indeed there was but little money to spend. Mrs. Butterfield - that was the old woman's name - admitted them, but without speaking; when Gilbert made some kindly-meant remark about its being disagreeable for her to live in such a strong odour of paint, she muttered inarticulately and withdrew into the kitchen. Thyrza presently peeped into that room. The old woman was sitting on a low stool by the fire, her knees up to her chin, her grizzled hair unkempt; she looked so remarkably like a witch, and, on Thyrza's appearance, turned with a gaze of such extreme malignity, that the girl drew back in fear.
'I suppose she takes it ill that the old state of things has been disturbed,' Gilbert said. 'Mr. Egremont tells me he has found that she is to have a small weekly allowance from the chapel people, so I don't suppose she'll fall into want, and we know be wouldn't send her off to starve; that isn't his way.'
The removal of such things as were to be brought from Walnut Tree Walk, and the housing of the new furniture, would take only a couple of days. This was to be done immediately before the wedding; then Lydia and Mrs. Grail would live in the house whilst the husband and wife were away.
Egremont found that the large school-room would be ready sooner than he had anticipated. When it was cleaned out, there was nothing to do save to fix shelves, a small counter, and two long tables. For some time he had been making extensive purchases of books, for the most part from a secondhand dealer, who warehoused his volumes for him till the library should be prepared to receive them. He had drawn up, too, a skeleton catalogue, but this could not be proceeded with before the books were in some sort of order upon the shelves. He was nervously impatient to reach this stage. Since his last visit to Eastbourne he had seen no friends in civilised London, and now that he had no longer lectures to write, his state of mind grew ever more unsatisfactory. Loneliness, though to so great an extent self-imposed, weighed upon him intolerably. He believed that he was going through the dreariest time of his life.
How often he thought with envy of the little parlour in Walnut Tree Walk! To toil oneself weary through a long day in a candle factory, and then come back to the evening meal, with the certainty that a sweet young face would be there to meet one with its smile, sweet lips to give affectionate welcome - that would be better than this life which he led. He wished to go there again, but feared to do so without invitation. The memory of his evening there made drawing-rooms distasteful to him.
He had a letter from Mrs. Ormonde, in which a brief mention was made of Thyrza's visit. He replied:
'Why do you not tell me more of the impression made upon you by Miss Trent? It was a favourable one, of course, as you kept her with you over the Sunday. You do not mention whether Annabel saw her. She is very fond of music; it would have been a kindness to ask Annabel to play to her. But I have Miss Newthorpe's promise that she and her father will come and see the library as soon as it is open; then at all events they will make the acquaintance of Mrs. Grail.
'She interests me very much, as you gather from my way of writing about her. I hope she will come to think of me as a friend. It will be delightful to watch her mind grow. I am sure she has faculties of a very delicate kind; I believe she will soon be able to appreciate literature. Has she not a strange personal charm, and is it not impossible to think of her becoming anything but a beautiful-natured woman? You too, now that you know her, will continue to be her friend - I earnestly hope so. If she could be for a little time with you now and then, how it would help to develop the possibilities that are in her!'
To the letter of which this was part, Mrs. Ormonde quickly responded:
'With regard to Miss Trent,' she said, 'I beg you not to indulge your idealistic habits of thought immoderately. I found her a pretty and interesting girl, and it is not unlikely that she may make a good wife for such a man as Mr. Grail - himself, clearly, quite enough of an idealist to dispense with the more solid housewifely virtues in his life-mate. But I add this, Walter: It certainly would not be advisable to fill her head too suddenly with a kind of thought to which she has hitherto been a stranger. If I had influence with Mr. Grail, I should hint to him that he is going to marry a very young wife, and that, under the circumstances, the balance of character to be found in sober domestic occupation will, for some time, be what she most needs to aim at. You see, I am not an idealist, and I think commonplace domestic happiness of more account than aspirations which might not improbably endanger it. Forgive me for these remarks, which you will say have a slight odour of the kitchen, or, at best, of the store-room. Never mind; both are places without which the study could not exist.'
Egremont bit his lips over this; for the first time he was dissatisfied with Mrs. Ormonde. He wondered on what terms she had received Thyrza. He had imagined the girl as treated with every indulgence at The Chestnuts, but the tone of this letter made him fear lest Mrs. Ormonde had deemed it a duty to refrain from too much kindness. It was very unlike her; what had she observed that made her so disagreeably prudent all at once?
It added to his mental malaise. What change was befalling his life? Was he about to find himself actually sundered from the friends he had made in the sphere which his birth gave him no claim to enter? It all meant that he was reverting to the condition wherein he was born. His attempt to become a member of Society (with a capital) was proving itself a failure. Very well, he would find his friends in the working world. When he needed society of an evening, he would find it with Gilbert Grail and his wife. He would pursue his work more earnestly than ever; he would get his club founded, as soon as the library was ready for a rallying-place; he would seek diligently for the working men of hopeful character, and by force of sincerity win their confidence. Let the wealthy and refined people go their way.
And at this point he veritably experienced a great relief. For two days he went about almost joyously. His task was renewed before him, and his energy at the same time had taken new life. Doubt, he said to himself, was once more vanquished - perchance finally.
Then came another letter from Mrs. Ormonde, asking him to come and drink the air of these delicious spring days by the shore. He replied that it was impossible to leave London. That very day he had despatched seven packing-cases full of volumes to the library, and he was going to begin the work of setting the books on the shelves.
That was a Monday; a week remained before Thyrza's marriage-day. Thyrza had not been to the new house since she went with Gilbert to see about the furniture. Her curiosity was satisfied; her interest in the place had strangely lessened. More than that: in walking by herself she never chose that direction, whereas formerly she had always liked to do so. It seemed as if she had some reason for avoiding sight of the building.
This Monday her mind changed again. She frequently went to meet her sister at the dinner-hour, and to-day, having set forth somewhat too early, she went round by way of Brook Street. No positive desire impelled her; it was rather as if her feet took that turning independently of her thoughts. On drawing near to the library she was surprised to see a van standing before the door; two men were carrying a wooden box into the building. She crossed to the opposite side of the way, and went forwards slowly. The men came out, mounted to the box-seat of the van, and drove away.
That must be a delivery of books. Who was there to receive them?
She crossed the street again, and approached the library door. She walked past it, stopped, came back. She tried the handle, and the door opened. There was no harm in looking in.
Amid a number of packing-oases stood Egremont. His head was uncovered, and he had a screw-driver in his hand, as if about to open the chests. At sight of Thyrza he came forward with a look of delight and shook hands with her.
'So you have discovered what I'm about. I didn't wish anyone to know. You see, the shelves are all ready, and I couldn't resist the temptation of having books brought. Will you keep the secret?'
'I won't say a word, sir.'
Warmth on Thyrza's cheeks answered the pleasure in his eyes as he looked at her. Perhaps neither had fully felt how glad it would make them to meet again. When Thyrza had given her assurance, Egremont's face showed that he was going to say something in a different tone.
'Miss Trent, will you speak to me in future as you do to your friends? I want very much to be one of your friends, if you will let me.'
Thyrza kept her eyes upon the ground. She could not find the fitting words for reply. He continued:
'Grail is my friend, and we always talk as friends should. Won't you cease to think of me as a stranger?'
'I don't think of you in that way, Mr. Egremont.'
'Then let us shake hands again in the new way.'
Thyrza gave hers. She just met his eyes for a moment her own had a smile of intense happiness.
'Yes, keep this a secret,' Egremont went on, quickly resuming his ordinary voice. 'I'll surprise Grail in a few days, by bringing him in. Now, how am I to get this lid off? How tremendously firm it is! I suppose I ought to have got the men to do it, but I brought a screw-driver in my pocket, thinking it would be easy enough. Ah, there's a beginning! I ought to have a hammer.'
'Shall I go and ask Mrs. Butterfield if she has one?'
'Oh no, I'll go myself.'
'I'll run - it won't take me a minute!'
She went out by the door that led into the house. In the dark passage she was startled by coming in contact with someone.
'Oh, who is that?'
A muttered reply informed her that it was the old woman. They went forward into the nearest room. There was a disagreeable smile on Mrs. Butterfield's thin lips.
'If you please, have you got a hammer?' Thyrza asked. 'Mr. Egremont wants one.'
The old woman went apart, and returned with a hammer which was used for breaking coals.
'Oh, could you just wipe it?' Thyrza said. 'The handle's so very black.'
It was done, ungraciously enough, and Thyrza hastened back. Egremont was standing as she had left him.
'Ah, now I can manage! Thank you.'
With absorbed interest Thyrza watched the process.
'I saw them bringing the last box in,' she said; 'that's why I came to look.'
'That was a risk I foresaw - that someone would notice the cart. But perhaps you are the only one.'
'I hope so - as you don't want any one to know.'
She paused, then added:
'I was going to meet Lyddy - my sister. I don't go to work myself now, Mr. Egremont. Perhaps Gilbert has told you?'
'No, he hasn't mentioned it. But I am glad to hear it.'
'I don't much like my sister going alone, but she doesn't really mind.'
'I hope I shall soon know your sister.'
He had suspended the work, and stood with one foot upon the case. Thyrza reflected, then said:
'I hope you will like her, Mr. Egremont.'
'I am sure I shall. I know that you are very fond of your sister.'
'Yes.' Her voice faltered a little. 'I couldn't have gone to live away from her.'
Egremont bent to his task again, and speedily raised the lid. There was a covering of newspapers, and then the books were revealed.
'Now,' he said, 'it shall be your hand that puts the first on the shelf.'
He took out the first volume of a copy of Gibbon, and walked with it to the wall.
'This shall be its place, and there it shall always stay.'
'Will you tell me what the book is about, Mr. Egremont?' Thyrza asked, timidly taking it from him. 'I should like to remember it.'
He told her, as well as he could. Thyrza stood in thought for a moment, then just opened the pages. Egremont watched her.
'I wonder whether I shall ever be able to read that?' she said, in an under-voice.
'Oh yes, I'm sure you will.'
'And I've to stand it here?'
'Just there. You shall put all the volumes in their place, one after the other. There are eight of them.'
He brought them altogether, and one by one she took them from him. Then they went back to the case again, and there was a short silence.
'Gilbert's going to take me to a concert to-night, Mr. Egremont,' Thyrza said, looking at him shyly.
'Is he? You'll enjoy that. What concert?'
'It's at a place called St. James's Hall.'
'Oh yes! You'll hear admirable music.'
'I've never been to a concert before. But when I was at Eastbourne I heard a lady play the piano. I did enjoy that!'
'Was it Miss Newthorpe?' he asked, looking at her without a smile.
'Yes, that was her name.'
She met his look. Walter half turned away, then bent down to the books again.
'I know her,' he said. ' She plays well.'
He took a couple of volumes, and went with them to the shelves, where he placed them, without thought, next to the Gibbon. But in a moment he noticed the title, and moved them to another place. He had become absent. Thyrza, remaining by the case, followed his movements with her eyes. As he came back, he asked:
'Did you like Mrs. Ormonde?'
'Yes. She was very kind to me.'
To him it seemed an inadequate reply, and strengthened his fear that Mrs. Ormonde had not shown all the warmth he would have desired. Yet, as it proved, she had asked Annabel to play for Thyrza. Thyrza, too, felt that she ought to say more, but all at once she found a difficulty in speaking. Her thoughts had strayed.
'I think I must go now,' she said, 'or I shall miss my sister.'
'In that case, I won't delay you. I shall open one or two more of these boxes, then go somewhere for lunch. Good-bye!'
Thyrza said good-bye rather hurriedly, and without raising her face.
It happened that just then Mr. Bower was coming along Brook Street. He did not usually leave the works at mid-day, but to-day an exceptional occasion took him to Paradise Street in the dinner-hour. Thyrza came forth from the library just as he neared the corner; she did not see him, but Bower at once observed her. There was nothing singular in her having been there; possibly the furnishing of the house had begun. In passing the windows of the future library, Bower looked up at them with curiosity. Egremont stood there, gazing into the street. He recognised Bower, nodded, and drew back.
Bower did not care to overtake Thyrza. He avoided her by crossing the street. She in the meantime was not going straight to meet her sister; after walking slowly for a little distance, she turned in a direction the opposite of that she ought to have taken. Then she stopped to look into a shop-window.
A clock showed her that by this time Lydia would be at home. Yet still she walked away from her own street. She said to herself that five-and-twenty minutes must pass before Gilbert would leave the house to return to his work. The way in which she now was would bring her by a long compass into Kennington Road. Rain threatened, and she had no umbrella; none the less, she went on.
At home they awaited her in surprise at her unpunctuality. Mrs. Grail could not say when she had left the house. All the morning Thyrza had sat upstairs by herself. Just when Gilbert was on the point of departure, the missing one appeared.
'Where have you been, child?' cried Lydia. 'Why, it's begun to rain; you're all wet!'
'I went further than I meant to,' Thyrza replied, throwing off her hat, and at once taking a seat at the table. 'I hope you didn't wait for me. I forgot the time.'
'That was with thinking of the concert to-night,' said Gilbert, laughing.
'I shouldn't wonder,' assented Lydia.
Thyrza smiled, but offered no further excuse. Gilbert and Lydia left the room and the house together. Their directions were opposite, but Gilbert went a few steps Lydia's way.
'I want you to alter your mind and go with us to-night,' he said.
'No, really! It isn't worth the expense, Gilbert. I don't care so much for music.'
'The expense is only a shilling. And Thyrza won't be quite happy without you. I want her to enjoy herself without any reserve. You'll come?'
'Well. But --'
'All right. Be ready both of you by half-past six.'
They nodded a good-bye to each other.
Thyrza was making believe to eat her dinner. Mrs. Grail saw what a pretence it was.
'Was there ever such an excitable child!' she said, affectionately. 'Now do eat something more, dear! I shall tell Gilbert he must never let you know beforehand when he's going to take you anywhere.'
But Thyrza had no appetite. She helped the old lady to clear the table, then ran upstairs.
It was an unspeakable relief to be alone. She had never known such a painful feeling of guilt as whilst she sat with Gilbert and Lydia regarding her. Yet why? Her secret, she tried to assure herself, was quite innocent, trivial indeed. But why had she been unable to come straight home? What had held her away, as forcibly as if a hand had lain upon her?
She moved aimlessly about the room. It was true that these last two days she had agitated herself with anticipation of the concert, but it was something quite different which now put confusion into her thought, and every now and then actually caught her breath. She did not feel well. She wished Liddy could have remained at home with her this afternoon, for she had a need of companionship, of a sort of help. There was Mrs. Grail; but no, she had rather not be with Mrs. Grail just now.
On the table were a few articles of clothing which Lydia and she had made during the last fortnight, things she was going to take away with her. This morning she had given them a few finishing touches of needlework, now they could be put away. She went to the chest of drawers. Of the two small drawers at the top, one was hers, one was Lydia's; the two long ones below were divided in the same way. She drew one out and turned over the linen. How some young lady about to be married - Miss Paula Tyrrell, suppose - would have viewed with pitying astonishment the outfit with which Thyrza was more than content. But Thyrza had never viewed marriage as an opportunity of enriching her wardrobe.
Having put her things away, she opened another drawer, and looked over some of Lydia's belongings. She stroked them lightly, and returned each carefully to its place, saying to herself, 'Lyddy wants such and such a thing. She'll have more money to spend on herself soon. And she shall have a really nice present on her next birthday. Gilbert 'll give me money to buy it.'
Then she went to the mantel-piece, and played idly with a little ornament that stood there. The trouble had been lighter for a few minutes, now it weighed again. Her heart beat irregularly. She leaned her elbows on the mantel-piece, and covered her face with her hands. There was a strange heat in her blood, her breath was hot.
Was it raining still? No, the pavement had dried, and there was no very dark cloud in the sky. She could not sit here all through the afternoon. A short walk would perhaps remove the headache which had begun to trouble her.
She descended the stairs very lightly, and hastened almost on tip-toe along the passage; the front door she closed as softly as possible behind her, and went in the direction away from Mrs. Grail's parlour window. To be sure she was free to leave the house as often as she pleased, but for some vague reason she wished just now not to be observed. Perhaps Gilbert would think that she went about too much; but she could not, she could not, sit in the room.
Without express purpose, she again walked towards Brook Street. No, she was not going to the library again; Mr. Egremont might still be there, and it would seem so strange of her. But she went to a point whence she could see the building, and for some minutes stood looking at it. Was he still within - Mr. Egremont? Those books would take him a long time to put on the shelves. As she looked someone came out from the door; Mr. Egremont himself. She turned and almost ran in her desire to escape his notice.
He was going home. Even whilst hurrying, she tried to imagine how he was going to spend his evening. From Gilbert's description she had made a picture of his room in Great Russell Street. Did he sit there all the evening among his books, reading, writing? Not always, of course. He was a gentleman, he had friends to go and see, people who lived in large houses, very grand people. He talked with ladies, with such as Miss Newthorpe. (Thyrza did not trouble to notice where she was. Her feet hurried her on, her head throbbed. She was thinking, thinking.)
Such as Miss Newthorpe. Yes, he knew that lady; knew her very well, as was evident from the way in which he spoke of her. Of what did they talk, when they met? No doubt she had often played to him, and when she played he would look at her, and she was very beautiful.
She would not think of Miss Newthorpe. Somehow she did not feel to her in the same way as hitherto.
When she was married, she would of course see him very often - Mr. Egremont. He would be at the library constantly, no doubt. Perhaps he would come sometimes and sit in their room. And when he began his lectures in the room upstairs, would it not be possible for her to hear him? She would so like to, just once. She could at all events creep softly up and listen at the door. How beautiful his lectures must be! Gilbert could never speak strongly enough in praise of them. They would be a little hard to understand, perhaps; but then she was going to read books more than ever, and get knowledge.
She was in the part of Lambeth Walk farthest from her own street, having come there by chance, for she had observed nothing on the way. She did not wish to go home yet. One end of Paradise Street joins the Walk, and into that she turned. If only there were a chance of Totty Nancarrow's being at home! But Totty was very regular at work. Still, an inquiry at the door would be no harm.
Little Jack Bunce was standing in the open doorway; he had a rueful countenance, marked with recent tears.
'Do you know whether Miss Nancarrow's in?' Thyrza asked of the little fellow.
He regarded her, and nodded silently.
'Really? She's really in?'
'Yes, she's up in her room,' was the grave answer.
Thyrza ran upstairs. A tap at the door, and Totty's voice - unmistakable - gave admission. The girl sat sewing; on the bed lay a child, asleep.
Totty, looking delighted at Thyrza's coming, held up her finger to impose quietness. Thyrza took the only other chair there was, and drew it near to her friend.
'That's Nelly Bunce,' Totty said in a low voice, nodding to the bed. 'Just when I was going back to work, what did the child do but tumble head over heels half down stairs, running after me. It's a wonder she don't kill herself. I don't think there's no more harm done except a big bump on the back of the head, but Mrs. Ladds wasn't in, and I didn't like to go and leave the little thing; she cried herself to sleep. So there's half a day lost!
Thyrza kept silence. She had felt that she would like to talk with Totty, yet now she could find nothing to say.
'How's things going on?' Totty asked, smiling.
'Very well, I think.'
'So the day's coming, Thyrza.'
Thyrza played with the ends of a small boa which was about her neck. She had no reply. Her tongue refused to utter a sound.
'What's the matter?'
Thyrza's hand fell, she touched the sewing that was on Totty's lap. Then she touched Totty's hand.
'Will you tell me about - about Mr. Ackroyd?'
Totty drew in her lips, knitted her brows, then bent to bite off an end of cotton.
'What is there to tell?' she asked.
'Is he doing as he promised?'
'As far as I know,' said the other, in a voice which affected indifference.
'And do you think he'll keep right till Christmas?'
'That's a good deal more than I can say, or anybody else.'
'But you'll do your best to make him?'
'I don't know that I shall bother much. It's his own lookout. I shall know what he means if he goes wrong again.'
'You hope he'll keep his promise?' Thyrza said, bending a little nearer, and dropping her eyes as soon as she had spoken.
'H'm. Yes. Perhaps I do,' said Totty, putting her head on one side. And forthwith she began to hum a tune, which however, she checked the next moment, remembering Nelly.
'But you speak in a queer way, Totty.'
'So do you, Thyrza. What are you bothering about?'
Again she searched Thyrza's face, this time with something very curious in her gaze, a kind of suspicion one would have said.
'I - I like to know about you,' Thyrza said, with embarrassment.
'I've told you all there is to tell.'
'But you haven't told me really whether -- Do you,' she sank her voice still lower, 'do you love him, Totty?'
A singular flush came and went upon the other girl's face. She herself was little disposed to use sentimental words, and it was the first time that Thyrza had done so to her. The coarseness she heard from certain of her companions did not abash her, but this word of Thyrza's seemed to do so strangely. She looked up in a moment. Thyrza's face was agitated.
'What does that matter?' Totty said, in a rather hard voice. And she added, drawing herself up awkwardly, 'You've made your own choice, Thyrza.'
For an instant surprise held Thyrza mute; then she exclaimed:
'But, Totty, you don't think --? I was thinking of you, dear; only of you. You never supposed I -- Oh, say you didn't think that, Totty!'
Totty relaxed her muscles a little. She smiled, shook her head, laughed uneasily.
'I meant, dear,' Thyrza continued, 'that I hope you do love him, as you're going to marry him. I hope you love him very much, and I hope he loves you. I'm sorry I said that. I thought you wouldn't mind.'
'I don't mind at all, old dear. If you must know - I like him pretty well.'
'But it ought to be more than that - it ought, Totty - much more than that, dear --'
She was trembling. Totty looked at her in surprise, coldly.
'Don't go on like that,' she said. 'There, you've woke the child, of course! Now there'll be two of you crying. See which can make most noise. Now, Nelly! Well, I call this nice!
At the sound of the child's voice, Thyrza at once restrained herself and rose from her chair. Totty managed to quieten her little charge, whom she took upon her lap. She did not look at Thyrza.
'Good-bye, Totty!' said the latter, holding out her hand.
'Good-bye!' Totty returned, but without appearing to notice the hand offered. 'I hope you'll be better before next Monday, Thyrza.'
'You're unkind to-day, Totty. I wish I hadn't come in.'
There was no reply to this, so Thyrza said another farewell and left the house.
She got back to her room, and, hopeless of otherwise passing the time till Lydia's return, lay down on the bed. Perhaps she could close her eyes for half an hour. But when she had turned restlessly from one side to the other, there came a knock at the door. She knew it must be Mrs. Grail, and made no answer. But the knock was repeated, and the door opened. Mrs. Grail looked in, and, seeing Thyrza, came to the bedside.
'Aren't you well, my dear?' she asked, gently.
Thyrza made pretence of having just awoke.
'I thought I'd try and sleep a little,' she replied, holding her face with one hand. 'No, I don't feel quite well.'
'Lie quiet, then. I won't disturb you. Come down as soon as you'd like some tea.'
It was a weary time till Lydia returned, although she came back nearly half an hour earlier than usual. Thyrza still lay on the bed. When they had exchanged a few words, the latter said:
'I don't think I can go to-night, Lyddy. My head's bad.'
'Oh, what a pity! Can't we do something to make it better?'
Thyrza turned her face away.
'I'd altered my mind,' Lydia continued. 'I meant to go with you.'
'Really? You'll go with us?'
Thyrza felt that this would lessen the strange reluctance with which through the afternoon she had thought of the concert. She at once rose, and consented more cheerfully to try if a cup of tea would help her. She bathed her forehead, smoothed her hair, and went down.
It was not long before Gilbert entered, he too having come away earlier from work. In order to get a seat in the gallery of the concert hall, they must be soon at the doors. Thyrza declared that she felt much better. Her heavy eyes gave little assurance of this, but something of her eagerness had returned, and for the time she had indeed succeeded in subduing the torment within.
An omnibus took the three into Piccadilly. They were not too early at the hall, for the accustomed crowd had already begun to assemble. Thyrza locked her arm in her sister's, Gilbert standing behind them. He whispered a word now and then to one or the other, but Thyrza kept silence; her cheeks were flushed; she inspected all the faces about her. At length, admission was gained and seats secured.
Thyrza sat between the other two, but she still kept her hold on Lydia's arm, until the latter said laughingly:
'You're not afraid of losing me now. I expect we shall be dreadfully hot here soon.'
She withdrew her hand. Gilbert began to talk to her. Had it not been for the circumstances, he must have observed a difference in Thyrza's manner to him. She scarcely ever met his look, and when she spoke it was with none of the usual spontaneity. But she seemed to be absorbed in observation of the people who had begun to seat themselves in other parts of the hall. The toilettes were a wonder to her. Lydia, too, they interested very much; she frequently whispered a comment on such as seemed to her 'nice' or the contrary. She could not help trying to think how Thyrza would look if 'dressed like a lady.'
Thyrza started, so perceptibly that Lydia asked her what was the matter.
'Nothing,' she answered, moving as if to seat herself more comfortably. But henceforth her eyes were fixed in one direction, on a point down in the body of the hall. She no longer replied to the remarks of either of her companions. The flush remained warm upon her cheeks.
'Thyrza!' whispered Gilbert, when the musicians were in their places, and the preliminary twanging and screeching of instruments under correction had begun. 'There's Mr. Egremont!'
'Is he? Where?'
'Do you see that tall lady in the red cloak? No, more to the left; there's a bald man on the other side of him.'
'Yes, I see him.'
She waited a moment, then repeated the news to Lydia, with singular indifference. Then she began to gaze in quite other directions. The instrumental uproar continued.
'Oh dear!' said Lydia, with a wry face. I'm sure that kind of music won't do your head any good. Is it still better?'
'I think so - yes, yes.'
'Grandad doesn't take anything like that time to tune his fiddle,' the other whispered, conscious that she was daring in her criticism.
Thyrza, on an impulse, conveyed the remark to Gilbert, who laughed silently.
The concert began. Thyrza's eyes had again fixed themselves on that point down below, and during the first piece they did not once move. Her breathing was quick. The heart in her bosom seemed to swell, as always when some great emotion possessed her, and with difficulty she kept her vision unclouded. Lydia often looked at her, so did Gilbert; she was unconscious of it.
'Did you like that?' Gilbert asked her when the piece was over.
'Yes, very much.'
She had leaned back. Lydia sought her hand; she received a pressure in return, but the other hand did not remain, as she expected it would.
Gilbert himself was not much disposed to speak. He, too, was moved in the secret places of his being - moved to that ominous tumult of conflicting joy and pain which in the finer natures comes of music intensely heard. He had been at concerts before, but had little anticipated that he would ever attend one in such a mood as was his to-night. It seemed to him that he had not yet realised his happiness, that in his most rapturous moments he had rated it but poorly, unimaginatively. The strong wings of that glorious wordless song bore him into a finer air, where his faculties of mind and heart grew unconditioned. If it were possible to go back into the world endowed as in these moments! To the greatest man has come the same transfiguration, the same woe of foreseen return to limits. But one thing was real and would not fail him. She who sat by him was his - his now and for ever. Why had he yet loved her so little?
The second piece began. Again Thyrza looked down into the hall. After a while there came a piece of vocal music. The singer was not of much reputation, but to Thyrza her voice seemed more than human. In the interval which followed she whispered to Lydia:
'I shall never pretend to sing again.'
Egremont had risen in his place, and was looking about him. Thyrza was yet in some doubt whether he was alone. But he had not yet spoken to that lady next to him, and now, on sitting down, he did not speak. He must be without companion.
In the crowd with which they mingled on passing out again, Thyrza saw men in evening dress; she looked in every direction for Egremont, but was disappointed. Gilbert had begged her to hold his arm; he moved forward as quickly as possible, and with Lydia following they were soon in the street. Gilbert wished to cross, for the sake of quickly getting out of the throng. Thyrza threw one glance back. A hat was raised by someone going in the opposite direction, who also had turned his head. She had seen him. She was glad he did not come up to speak. Could he discern the flash of joy which passed over her face as she recognised him? She hoped he had, but at once hoped that he had not.
There was waiting for an omnibus. Thyrza still had her arm within Gilbert's; she was unconscious of all the bustle amid which she stood, unconscious of the pressure with which Gilbert drew her nearer to him. When at length bidden, she entered the vehicle, and leaned back with her eyes closed.
How dark and quiet these streets of Lambeth seemed As she passed the threshold of the house, a sudden chill fell upon her, and she shook. How sombre the passage was, with its dim lamp suspended against the wall! Voices seemed strange; when Mrs. Grail welcomed her in the parlour, she did not recognise the sound.
She could not be persuaded to get to bed immediately. Neither could she sit still, but walked restlessly about the floor.
'How hot it is!' she complained to Lydia. 'Do you mind if I open the window just a little?'
'I don't, but I'm afraid it'll give you cold. Now do undress, there's a dear!'
'Just for a minute.'
She threw the window up, and stood breathing the air. Her thoughts strayed into the darkness. Had Mr. Egremont gone to the concert just because she mentioned that she was going? It was not likely, but perhaps so. When should she see him to speak of it? Would he still be arranging books the next morning?
'Now, Thyrza, you must shut the window! I shall be angry. Do as I tell you, and get to bed at once.'
At the voice, Thyrza drew the window down, then turned and stood before her sister, as if she were going to say something. But she did not speak.
'Do you feel ill, dear?' Lydia asked, anxiously.
'Not well, Lyddy. Don't get cross with me. I'll go to bed directly.'
She walked again the length of the room, then began to hum an air. It was the first song of the concert. She took the crumpled programme from her pocket, and glanced over it. Lydia moved impatiently. Thyrza put the programme down on the table, and began to loosen her dress.
'Are you glad you went, Lyddy?' she asked, in a tired voice.
'I shan't be glad we any of us went if it's going to make you ill, Thyrza.'
'I shall be all right to-morrow, I dare say. I wonder whether Mr. Egremont often goes to concerts?'
'Very likely. He can afford it.'
'I mustn't go again for a long time.'
She had seated herself on the bed and was undoing the braid of her hair. She spoke the last words thoughtfully. In a minute or two the light was out.
Lydia soon fell asleep. In the very early morning a movement of her sister's awoke her. She found that Thyrza was sitting up in the bed.
'What is it, dear?' she asked, 'Lie down and go to sleep.'
'I can't, Lyddy, I can't! I am so tired, and I haven't closed my eyes. Keep awake with me a minute, will you?'
Lydia took the sleepless girl in her arms.
'The music won't leave me,' Thyrza moaned. 'It's just as if I heard them playing now.'
Lydia nursed her into a fitful sleep.
Though Thyrza had no work to go to, she still always rose together with her sister, and, whilst the latter put the room in order, went down to assist Mrs. Grail in getting the breakfast. But on the morning after the concert Lydia was glad to see that the head beside her own was weighed down with sleep when the hour for rising had come. She dressed as quietly as possible, leaving the blind drawn, and descended to say that Thyrza would be a little longer than usual. Gilbert was in the parlour.
'Has she slept well?' he asked.
'Not very well. She couldn't get the sound of the music out of her ears. But she's fast now.'
'We shall have to be careful of her, Lyddy,' Gilbert said, anxiously.
For he had had her face before him all night, with its pale, wearied look of over-excitement. He knew how delicate a nature it was that he was going to take into his charge, and already his love was at times gently mingled with fear.
Lydia went upstairs again, and softly into the room. Thyrza had just awoke and was sitting with her hands together upon her face.
'What time is it?' she asked. 'Why did you let me sleep? Have you been up long?'
Lydia constrained her to lie down again. She was unwilling at first, but in the end fell back with a sigh of relief.
'What day is it, Lyddy? Oh, Tuesday, of course. I suppose the days 'll go very slow till Saturday. I'm sure I don't know what I shall do all the time.'
'Don't trouble about it now, dear. Try and sleep a little more, and I'll bring you up some breakfast just before I go.'
'That'll be like when I was poorly, won't it, Lyddy?'
She lay and laughed quietly.
'You feel better?'
'Oh yes. Is it a fine morning?'
'The pavement's just drying.
She drew the clothes over her head. Lydia could hear her still laughing, and wondered. Thyrza could not have told what it was that amused her.
She did not sleep again, but had breakfast in bed. Lydia sat with her as long as possible. Thyrza, as soon as she heard the front door close behind her sister, sprang on to the floor and began to dress with nervous rapidity; her hands were so unsteady that she had all sorts of difficulties with buttons and hooks and eyes.
'Don't trouble with your hair,' Lydia had said. 'I'll do it at dinner-time.'
But Thyrza could not obey in this. She did the plaiting twice over, being dissatisfied with the first result, and even took a new piece of blue ribbon for the ends.
The sun was shining. That always affected her pleasurably, and this morning, as soon as she was dressed, a gladness altogether without conscious reason made her sing, again the song of the concert. The air, which she could not wholly remember the night before, had grown to completeness in her mind; she longed to know the words, that the whole song might henceforth stay with her. And the sun, so rare in our dull skies, seemed to warm the opposite houses. She threw open the window, and heard the clocks striking nine.
'I'll just make the bed and put things straight, then - oh, then I must really go and do something for Mrs. Grail. I left her alone nearly all yesterday. And then I might go and meet Lyddy. But it's a long time till half-past twelve. Perhaps --'
Having made the bed she sat down to rest for a moment. After all, the headache was certainly not gone, though it had been disguising itself. The moment grew to a quarter of an hour. Her eyes seemed to behold something very clearly, just in front, down there on the floor. But the floor itself had made way for a large hall; among rows of people she saw a tall lady in a red cloak, and a bald-headed gentleman, and between them someone whose face was at an angle which allowed her to see it very well, to note even the look, not quite a smile, of pleasure which made it so interesting. She knew no other face which affected her as that did. She desired it to turn full upon her, to look straight into hers with its clear, gentle eyes, which seemed to be so full of wonderful knowledge. Once or twice, yes, in truth, once or twice it had done so, but never for long enough. It would do so yet again. Oh but not for long enough! A look not of instants, but of minutes, of full minutes ticked to their last second; what would she give for that! One such gaze and she would be satisfied. It was not to ask much, surely not much.
But she was going to live there, behind the library, and he would come often, very often. For a time he would certainly come every day. To be sure, she could not see him daily. Her duties would be in the house; she would be a wife; people would call her 'Mrs. Grail.'
A voice whispered, a very timid, one would have said a guilty, voice, 'Who will be called 'Mrs. Egremont'?' Not once; the voice, faint as it was, had an echo, a tingling echo from her heart outwards to the smallest vein. Who will bear that name? Some tall, beautiful, richly-clad lady, such as Miss Newthorpe. Was there any one who at this moment sat alone, longing for one look of his eyes? Did ladies think and feel in that way? or only foolish little work-girls, who all their lives had dreamed dreams of a world that was not theirs? Did ladies ever press down a heart beating almost to anguish and say, half-aloud, to themselves: 'I love you!'
No; a stately life theirs, no weakness, no sense of a measureless need, self-respect ever, and ever respect from all about them. Think of Miss Newthorpe's face. How noble it was! How impossible that it should plead for anything It might concede with a high, gracious smile, but not beseech anything. That was the part of poor girls who had not been taught, in whom it was no shame to look up to one far above them and long - long for kindness.
The sunlight was creeping along the floor, nearer to her. Oh sun of spring! nearer, nearer! Your warmth upon my hands, upon my face! Your warmth upon my heart, that something warm may press there!
The clocks were striking ten. It was unkind to leave Mrs. Grail alone. The girl hired to do rough work was coming today, but for all that it behoved her to be attentive to the good old lady, who never spoke to her save with good, motherly words.
Yes, away with it all! She must go down and be company to Gilbert's mother. Had she forgotten that in less than a week she would be Gilbert's wife? A simple test: could she speak out these thoughts of hers to Lyddy? The hot current in her veins was answer enough. And that had been the criterion of right and wrong with her since she was a little child. Lyddy knew the right instinctively, and never failed to act upon her knowledge. What had been Lyddy's thoughts of Luke Ackroyd? Perhaps not very different from these to which she had been listening; for Lyddy too was a work-girl, not a lady. Yet the brave sister had kept it all hidden away; more, had done her very best to bring together Luke and someone else whom he loved. How was it possible to reach that height of unselfishness? But the example should not be without its effect.
Thyrza presented herself in the parlour. The room was in some disorder; a girl was on her knees by the fireplace, cleaning. Thyrza went down to the little back kitchen, which was behind the room where Mr. and Mrs. Jarmey practically lived. It was dark and cold. Mrs. Grail was making a pudding,
'Good-morning, my dear!' she said, nodding several times. 'Better now? I hoped you wouldn't be down yet, but I suppose you couldn't sleep for the sunshine. I don't think you ought to sit here.'
'Oh, but I'm going to help you. Please give me something to do. Shall I clean these knives?'
'The idea! Charlotte 'll be down to do those directly. If you really don't find it too cold here, you may tell me something about the concert.'
'Yes, I'll tell you, but I must work at the same time. I want to, I must! Yes, I shall do the knives. Please don't be cross!'
She was bent on it; Mrs. Grail quietly acquiesced. For ten minutes Thyrza wrought strenuously at the knife-board, speaking only a few words. Then the girl Charlotte made her appearance.
'Now, Thyrza,' Mrs. Grail said, 'if you really want something to do, suppose you go and dust upstairs. You haven't dusted yet, have you, Charlotte?'
'No, mum, not yet.'
Thyrza rubbed away for a minute longer, then agreed to go up to the lighter work. Her head had not profited by the violent exercise.
Dusting is an occupation not incompatible with reverie. How hard it was to keep her mind from the subject which she had determined not to think of! As often as her face turned to the sunlight, that longing came back.
Mrs. Grail joined her presently. We know that the old lady had no fondness for domestic bustle. She sat down, and at length persuaded Thyrza to do the same.
At half-past eleven Mrs. Grail said:
'My dear, I think you ought to go out for a little, while it's so bright. I'm not at all sure that the sun 'll last till dinnertime; it's getting rather uncertain. Just go into Kennington Road and back.'
Thyrza shook her head.
'Not this morning. I'm a little tired.'
'Yes, but it'll make you feel more cheerful, and you'll have an appetite for dinner, which I'm sure you haven't had for a week and more. How ever you live on the few mouthfuls you eat is a wonder to me. You ought to have half an hour's walk every day, indeed you ought.'
It was sorely against her will to go forth, yet desire called to her from the sunlit ways. Slowly down the stairs, slowly to the end of Walnut Tree Walk.
Look at that white billow of cloud on its fathomless ocean! Even now there were clouds like that high up over Eastbourne. One such had hung above her as she drove with Mrs. Ormonde up Beachy Head. At this moment the sea was singing; this breeze, which swept the path of May, made foam flash upon the pebbled shore. Sky and water met on that line of mystery; far away and beyond was the coast of France.
More quickly now. Whither was she tending? She had at first kept southwards, straight along Kennington Road; now she had crossed, and was turning into a street which might - only might - conduct her round into Brook Street. Desire was in her feet; she could no longer check them; she must hasten on whithersoever they led.
Oh, why had she left the house! Why had Mrs. Grail - a cruel mother - bidden her go forth when her will was to stay, and work, and forget! Could she not stop, even now, and turn?
She stopped. Was it likely that he would be there this morning? No, not very likely. He would finish all the books yesterday. Yet others might have been brought.
If he would give her one long look - the look for which she fainted - then that should be the end. That should be the very end. She would not play with danger after that. For now she knew that it was danger; that thought of Lyddy had made everything terribly clear. He would never know anything of what had been in her foolish heart, and it would cost him nothing to look once at her with a rich, kind look. He was all kindness. He had done, was doing, things such as no other man in his position ever thought of. She would like to tell him the immeasurable worship with which his nobleness inspired her; but the right words would never come to her, and the wrong would be so near her lips. No, one look for him, and therewith an end.
The library was within sight; she had walked very quickly. If he should not be there! Her hand was on the door; the bitterness of it if the door proved to be locked.
It was open. She was in the little entrance hall. At the door of the library itself she stood listening.
Was that a sound of someone within? No, only the beat of her own heart, the throb which seemed as if it must kill her. She could not open the door! She had not the strength to stand. The pain, the pain!
Yet she had turned the handle, and had entered. He was in the act of placing volumes on the shelves. She moved forward and he looked round.
That was not the look she desired. Surprise at first, surprise blent with pleasure; but then a gravity which was all but disapproval.
Yet he gave his hand.
'Good-morning, Miss Trent!' The voice was scrupulously subdued, as inflexionless as he could make it. 'I am still at my secret work, you see. When I went away for lunch yesterday something prevented me from returning, so I came down again this morning.'
'You have got them nearly all put up.'
She could not face him, but kept her eyes on the almost empty cases.
'Yes. But I expect some more this afternoon.'
He walked away from her, with books in his hands. Thyrza felt ashamed. What must he think of her? It was almost rude to come in this way - without shadow of excuse. Doubtless he was punishing her by this cold manner. Yet he could not unsay what he had said yesterday; and his recognition of her just outside the Hall last night had been so friendly. She felt that her mode of addressing him had been too unceremonious; the 'Sir' of their former intercourse seemed demanded again. Yet to use it would be plain disregard of his request.
Must she speak another word and go? That would be very hard. Shame and embarrassment notwithstanding, it was so sweet to be here; nay, the shame itself was luxury.
'I am so sorry I haven't a chair to offer you. If I put the top on this box? That is a very rude sort of seat, but --'
Then he wished her to remain a little? Or was it mere politeness, which modesty should direct her to meet with similar refusal? It was so hard that she did not know what was proper, how she was expected to behave.
In the meantime, the seat was improvised. He asked her with a smile if she would take it.
'Thank you, Mr. Egremont. I'm afraid I mustn't stay. Or only a minute.'
He glanced at the inner door, leading to the house. Had some sound come thence?
Thyrza seated herself. With one hand she held the edge of the box nervously. Her eyes were bent downwards. Egremont again walked away from her. On returning, he said, in the same almost expressionless tone:
'I hope you enjoyed the concert last night?'
This was what she had wished, that he would speak of the concert.
'I did, so very much,' she replied.
And, as she spoke, her face was lifted. He was regarding her, and did not at once avert his eyes. For an appreciable space of time they looked at each other.
Was she then satisfied? Could she leave him now and draw a hard line between this hour and the future? Less satisfied than ever. His gaze was a mystery; it seemed so cold, and yet, and yet - what did it suggest to her? That just observable tremor on his lip; that slight motion of the forehead, those things spoke to her miraculously sharpened sense, and yet she could not interpret their language. It was very far from the look she had yearned for, yet perhaps it affected her more profoundly than a frank gaze of kindness would have done.
He moved a little, again glancing at the inner door.
'I was there myself,' were his next words.
'Yes, I saw you. In the Hall, I mean; not only afterwards.'
Uttered without forethought - she desired to say that and had said it.
'Did you?' he said, more coldly still.
'Gilbert pointed you out to us.'
It was true, and it involved a falsehood. Egremont happened to regard her as she spoke, and at once a blush came to her cheeks. To what was she falling? Why did she tell untruths without the least need? She could not understand the motive which had impelled her to that.
Egremont had a distinct frown on his face. It was as though he read her deceit and despised her for it. Thyrza added, confusedly:
'My sister went with us. She hadn't meant to, but Gilbert persuaded her at last.'
'Do you remember which piece you liked best?'
'No, I couldn't say. It was all so beautiful. I liked the songs so much.'
'But Mr. Grail must take you to hear better singers than those.'
'Weren't they good?' she asked in astonishment.
'Certainly not bad, but not really excellent.'
He mentioned one or two world-echoed names, and spoke in particular of a concert shortly to be given, at which such singers would be heard.
'You have heard them?' Thyrza asked, gazing at him.
'I should be almost afraid.'
He thought it a wonderful word to come from this untaught girl. Again their eyes met. He laughed.
'Something like my own feeling when I got out at Niagara Station, and began to walk towards the Falls. I dreaded the first sight of them.'
He was purposely turning it to a jest. He durst not reply to her in her own mood. And he saw that she had not understood.
'You have heard of Niagara?'
'No, Mr. Egremont. Will you tell me about it?'
He made a very brief pause, and she noticed it with fear. Did he despise her ignorance, or did he think her troublesome? Yet he began to explain, and was soon speaking much more freely, almost as he had spoken that evening in the Grails' room, when he told of his sea-experiences.
He ended somewhat abruptly, and went to the shelves with books. Thyrza rose and followed him. He looked back, strangely, as if startled.
'May I look at the books I put up yesterday?' she asked, timorously.
'Ah yes! There is old Gibbon, our corner-stone. He hasn't much elbow-room now.'
Again he laughed. The laugh troubled her; she preferred him to be grave.
'And some more books are coming to-day?' she said.
'Yes, this afternoon.'
'Mr. Egremont, may I come and help to put up a few to-morrow morning?'
Again her tongue uttered words in defiance of herself. She could not believe it when the words were spoken.
Egremont perused the floor. The slight frown had returned.
'But perhaps I shall be in your way,' she continued, hastily. 'I didn't think. I am troublesome.'
'Indeed you are not at all, Miss Trent. I should be very glad. If - if you are sure you can spare the time?'
'I can quite well. I do a little work for Mrs. Grail, but that doesn't take anything like all the morning.'
A word was on his tongue. He was about to say that perhaps it would be as well, after all, to tell Grail, and for Thyrza to ask the latter's permission. He even began to speak, but hesitated, ceased.
'Shall I come at this same time?' Thyrza inquired, her voice almost failing her.
'I shall be here at about eleven; certainly by half-past.'
'Then I will come. I shall be so glad to help.'
A pronoun was lost; something prevented its utterance. Egremont made no reply. Thyrza found power to hold her hand out and take leave. How often they seemed to have held each other's hand!
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