It would have been a remarkable thing if Egremont had succeeded, even for a day or two, in keeping secret his work at the library. The vulgar in Lambeth are not a jot less diligent in prying and gossip than are their kin in Mayfair. And chance is wont to be mischief-making all the world over.
When Mr. Bower passed the library in the dinner-hour on Monday, and, after seeing Thyrza Trent come out, forthwith observed Mr. Egremont standing within at the window, his mind busied itself with the coincidence very much as it might have been expected to do. When he reached home he privately reported the little incident to his wife. They looked at each other, and Mr. Bower lowered first one eyelid, then the other.
'Is Grail still at his work?' Mrs. Bower inquired.
'Safe enough. He goes on till Saturday. Ackroyd told me so yesterday.'
'And her sister's at work too?'
'Is the workmen there still?'
'No, they're all out. Safe enough.'
Mr. Bower seemed to find a satisfaction in repeating the significant phrase. He chuckled disagreeably.
'It looks queer,' remarked his wife, with a certain contemptuousness.
'It looks uncommon queer. I wonder whether old Mrs. Butterfield happened to be safe likewise.' He nodded. 'I'll look in and have a word with the old lady to-night, eh?'
Mrs. Butterfield's husband, some years deceased, had been a fellow-workman with Bower. The latter, prying about the school-building as soon as he heard that Egremont was going to convert it into a library, had discovered that the caretaker was known to him. There seemed at the time no particular profit to be derived from the circumstance, but Mr. Bower regarded it much as he would have done a piece of lumber that might have come into his possession, as a thing just to be kept in mind, if perchance some use for it should some day be discovered. It is this habit of thought that helps the Bower species to become petty capitalists. We call it thrift, and - respecting public opinion - we do not refuse our admiration.
On Monday evening, about eight o'clock, Mr. Bower went up to the house-door in the rear of the building, and knocked. The door was opened about two inches, and an aged voice asked who was there.
'It's me, Mrs. Butterfield - Bower,' was the pleasantly modulated reply.
The door opened a little wider.
'Does Mr. Egremont happen to be here?' the visitor went on to ask.
'No, Mr. Bower, he ain't here, nor likely to come again to night, I shouldn't think.'
'Never mind. I dare say you'd let me have a look in, just to see how things is goin' on. I saw him at the window as I passed at dinner-time, and we just nodded to each other, but I hadn't time to stop.'
The old woman admitted him. In the house was an exultant savour of frying onions; a hissing sound came from the sitting-room.
'Cooking your supper, eh, Mrs. Butterfield?' said Bower, with genial familiarity. 'Why, that's right make yourself comfortable. Don't you fuss about, now; I'll sit down here; I like the smell.'
Mrs. Butterfield was not at all the same woman with this visitor that she was with strangers. For one thing, he brought back to her the memory of days when she had possessed a home of her own, and had not yet been soured by ill-hap; then again, Bower belonged to her own class, for all his money saved up and his pomposities of manner. There is a freemasonry between the members of the pure-blooded proletariat; they are ever ready in recognition of each other, and their suspicion of all above them, whether by rank or by nature, is a sense of the utmost keenness. Mrs. Butterfield varied somewhat from the type, inasmuch as she did not care to cringe before her superiors; but that was an accident; in essentials of feeling she and Bower were at one.
The table was half covered with a dirty cloth, on which stood a loaf of bread (plateless), a small dish ready to receive the fry, and a jug of beer. In the midst of the newly painted and papered room, which seemed ready to receive furniture of a more elegant kind than that of working-class homes, these things had an incongruity.
'And how does the world use you, Mrs. Butterfield, ma'am?' Bower asked, as he settled his bulky body on the small chair.
'I earn my bed and my victuals, Mr. Bower,' was the reply, as the old woman stirred her hissing mess with a fork.
'And a thing to be proud of at your age, ma'am.'
From such friendly dialogue, Bower gradually turned the talk to Egremont, of whom he spoke at first as a respected intimate. Observation of his collocutor led him shortly to alter his tone a little. When he had heard that books were already arriving, he remarked:
'That's as much as to say that you'll soon be turned out, Mrs. Butterfield. Well, I call it hard at your age, ma'am. Now if Egremont had acted like a gentleman and had offered me to be librarian, you'd still have kept your place here. I don't want to say disagreeable things, but if ever there was a mean and indecent action, it was when he passed over me and gave the place to a stranger. Why, Mrs. Butterfield, he has to thank me for everything! But for me he'd never have had a soul to hear his lectures. Well, well, it don't matter. And what do you think o' the young girl as is coming to keep house here after you?'
Mrs. Butterfield was turning out her supper into the dish. She gave him a peculiar look.
'When's she goin' to be wed?' was her question in reply.
'And does the man as is goin' to marry her know as she comes here to meet this young gent?'
'She comes to meet him? Does she, now? Tut - tut - tut! But we needn't think harm, Mrs. Butterfield - though you can tell from her face she'll need a good deal of looking after. And does she come regular, now?'
The old woman confessed that she only knew of two meetings, with a very long interval, but she hinted that the first had taken place under circumstances very suspicious; in fact, that it was obviously an appointment. And this morning, as soon as she knew of Thyrza's presence in the library (by the borrowing of the hammer), she had kept a secret espial through the key-hole of the inner door, with the result that she witnessed the two chatting together in a way sufficiently noteworthy, considering the difference of their stations.
The matter having been made to bear all the fruit it would in malevolent discussion, Mr. Bower left the old woman at her supper, and with a candle went to explore the state of the library. He did not remain long, for the big room was very cold, and shortly after rejoining the caretaker he bade her the friendliest good-evening.
'I consider you've done very right to tell me this,' he said, as she went to let him out. 'In my opinion it's something as Grail ought to know. You keep an eye open to-morrow morning; depend upon it, you're doing a good work. I shouldn't wonder if I look in to-morrow night. And I dare say you could do with a nice bit of cheese, eh? I'll see if I can pick a bit out of the shop.'
On Tuesday night he repeated his visit, bringing half a pound of very strong American in his pocket. He heard a shocking story. Thyrza had again been to the library, and so secretly that but for her station at the key-hole Mrs. Butterfield would have known nothing of it.
'Well, well, now! Tut - tut - tut!' commented portly Mr. Bower. 'To think! You never can trust these young men as have more money than they know what to do with! But I didn't think it of Egremont. That's the kind of fellow as comes to preach to the working man and tell him of his faults! Bah! Well, I'm not one for going about spreading storie. Grail must take his chance. Perhaps it 'ud be as well, Mrs. Butterfield, if you kept this little affair quiet - just between you and me, you know. There's no knowing. - Eh? A time may come. - Eh? It's none of our business just now. - Eh? You understand, Mrs. Butterfield? It might be as well to keep an eye open to the end of the week.'
Mr. Bower, on the way home, turned into his club, just to drink a glass of whisky at the club price. In the reading-room were a few men occupied with newspapers or in chat. In a corner, reading his favourite organ of 'free thought,' sat Luke Ackroyd.
Bower got his glass of spirits, brought it into the reading-room, and sat down by Ackroyd.
'So our friend Egremont's begun to get his books together,' he began.
Luke was indifferent. Of late he had entered upon a new phase of his mental trouble. He was averse from conversation, shrank from his old companions, seemed to have resumed studious habits. It had got about that he was going to marry Totty Nancarrow, but he refused to answer questions on the subject. Banter he met with so grim a countenance that the facetious soon left him to himself. He no longer drank, that was evident. But his face was pale, thin, and unwholesome. One would have said that just now he was more seriously unhappy than he had been throughout his boisterous period.
Bower, after one or two glances at him, lowered his voice to say:
'I can't think it's altogether the right thing for Thyrza Trent to be there every morning helping him. Of course you and me know as it's all square, but other people might - eh? Grail ought to think of that - eh?'
Now it had seemed to Mr. Bower, in his native wisdom, that any scandal about Thyrza would tickle Ackroyd immensely. He imagined Luke bearing a deep grudge against the girl and against Grail - for he knew that the friendship between Luke and the latter had plainly come to an end. In his love of gossip, he could not keep the story to himself, and he thought that Ackroyd would be the safest of confidants. In fact, though he spoke to Mrs. Butterfield as if he had conceived some deep plan of rascality, the man was not capable of anything above petty mischief. He liked to pose in secret as a sort of transpontine schemer; that flattered his self-importance; but his ambition did not seriously go beyond making trouble in a legitimate way. He did indeed believe that something scandalous was going on, and it would be all the better fun to have Ackroyd join him with malicious pleasure in a campaign against reputations. Luke was a radical of the reddest; surely it would delight him to have a new cry against the patronising capitalist.
Ackroyd, having heard that whisper, looked up from his paper slowly. And at once Bower knew that he had made a great miscalculation.
'Other people might think what?' Luke asked, with gravity passing into anger.
'Well, well; you must take it as I meant it, old man.' Bower was annoyed, and added: 'No doubt Egremont likes to have a pretty gyurl to talk to every morning. I don't blame him. Still, if I was Grail --'
'What the devil do you mean, Bower? What's all this about?'
Ackroyd clearly knew nothing. The other recovered some of his confidence.
'Well, you needn't let it go further. It's no good thinking the worst of people. For all I know Grail sends her to help with the books, just because he can't go himself.'
Luke laid down the paper, and said quietly:
'Will you tell me all about it? It's the first I've heard. What's going on?'
Bower brought out his narrative, even naming the authority for it. He took sips of whisky in between. Ackroyd heard in silence, and seemed to dismiss his indignation.
'There's nothing in all that,' he said at length. 'Of course Grail knows all about it. This Mrs. What's-her-name seems to have too little to do.'
'Well, there's no knowing.'
'And you're going to tell this story all over Lambeth?'
'Why, didn't I ask you to keep it quiet?'
'Yes, Bower, you did. And I mean to. And - look here! If you'd been a man of my own age, for all we've known each other a goodish time, I should have sent you spinning half across the room before now. So that's plain language, and you must make what you like of it!'
Therewith Luke thrust back his chair and walked out of the room.
He did not pause till he was some distance from the club. His blood was tingling. But it was not in anger that he at length stood still and asked himself whither he should go. His heart had begun to sink with fear.
Had he done wisely in insulting Bower? The fellow would take his revenge in an obvious way. That calumny would be in every one's mouth by the morrow.
And yet, as if that would not have come about in any case! How long was anything likely to remain a secret that was known in Mrs. Bower's shop? No, it made no difference.
Such stories going round with regard to Thyrza Trent! What was the meaning of it? Had there been some imprudence on Grail's part, some thoughtlessness in keeping with his character, which had in it so little of the everyday man? It was a monstrous thing that opportunities should have been given to that lying old woman!
He walked on, in the direction of home. There was a hideous voice at his ear. Suppose Grail in truth knew nothing about those meetings in the library? How explain the first of them, two months ago?
He altered his course, and, without settled purpose, hurried towards Walnut Tree Walk. As he drew near to the house he saw someone about to enter. He ran forward. It was Gilbert.
'How does the library get on?' he asked, with an abruptness which surprised Grail.
'Oh, all the carpenter's work is finished.'
'Any books come yet?'
'No, not yet.'
He passed on, leaving Gilbert still in surprise, for it was perhaps the first word Ackroyd had spoken to him concerning the library.
Luke began to run, and did not cease until he was in Brook Street in front of the library. He tried to look in at the windows, but found that the blinds were drawn. A policeman passed and scrutinised him.
'Do you know whether any one lives on these premises?' Luke asked at once.
He excited suspicion, but after a short dialogue the constable showed him the approach to the caretaker's house. He knocked at the door several times; at length it was barely opened.
'Is that Mrs. Butterfield?'
'Yes. What may you want?'
'I want to know, if you please, if Mr. Egremont called here to-day and left a message for Mr. Smith about some books.'
'He's been here, but he left no message.'
'Was he here long?'
'All the morning.'
'Putting books on the shelves?'
'Thank you. If there was no message, it's all right.'
Luke went off. In Kennington Road he again stood still. He felt chilled and wretched to the heart's core. Thyrza! Thyrza Trent! Was it possible?
He moved on. This time it was to Newport Street. Half-past ten had just gone; would Totty be up still? Whether or no, he must see her. He rang the bell which was a summons to her part of the house. Bunce opened.
'I want to see Miss Nancarrow,' Luke said to him in a low voice. 'Will you please knock at her door? I must see her.'
Totty came down immediately. She had her hat on and a shawl thrown about her.
'What ever is it?' she asked.
'Just come a little way off, Totty; I want to speak to you.'
She accompanied him to the dark side of the street, and, having got her there, he could find no fitting word with which to begin. He had no intention of telling her what he had heard and what he had discovered for himself, but she was a close friend of Thyrza's and might know or suspect something; moreover, she was a good girl, a girl thoroughly to be trusted, he felt sure of her. Perhaps a hint would be enough to induce her to share a secret with him, when she understood what his suspicions pointed to.
'Yes, you frighten me. What is it?'
'Have you seen Thyrza Trent lately?'
She tried to read his face through the darkness. Her yesterday's conversation with Thyrza was vivid in her mind. Suspicion was irritated at the sound of Thyrza's name on Luke's tongue.
'Totty, I want to ask you something.' He spoke with deepest earnestness, taking her hand. 'You won't keep anything from me, now? I want to know if Thyrza has talked to you about - about her marriage.'
'Why do you want to know that?' the girl asked, in a hard voice.
'I'll speak plainer, Totty. Be a good girl, Totty dear! Tell me what I want to know! Has she ever said anything to make you think that - that she liked any one better than Grail?'
What a coil was here! She had pulled her hand away, furious with him for his shamelessness. Yet self-respect did not allow her to speak vehemently.
'It seems to me,' she said, 'you'd better go and ask her.'
He hung in doubt. Totty added, with more show of feeling:
'Thyrza Trent's a little fool. You may tell her I said so, if you like. If you know all about it, what do you come bothering me for at this time o' night? I'm not going to be mixed up in such things, so I tell you! And there's an end of it!'
She left him. He stood and saw her re-enter the house.
Then is was true. 'If you know all about it,' . . . 'I'm not going to be mixed up in such things.' . . . Totty had been told, either by Thyrza herself or by someone already spreading the story. The story was true.
He was struck with weakness. Sweat broke out from all his body. Nothing he had ever heard had seemed to him so terrible. A girl like Thyrza! He had held her honesty as sure as the rising of day out of night.
Half an hour later he sat in his bedroom writing:
'Dear Miss Trent, - I want very much to see you. I will wait in Kennington Road, opposite the end of your street, from eight o'clock to-morrow night (Wednesday). Please do come. I must see you, and I wish no one to know of our meeting.
He addressed this to Lydia, 'Miss Lydia Trent,' that there might be no mistake, and went out to post it. But at the letter-box he altered his intention. If it was delivered by the postman, Thyrza would see it; it would lead to questionings.
He determined to deliver it at the hat factory in the morning, with his own hand.
Left alone, after Thyrza's second visit to him in the library, Egremont had no mind to continue his task. He idled about for a while, read half a page in a volume he took out of the box at hazard, then put on his overcoat and went out by the front door, which he locked behind him with the key he carried for his own convenience.
He was wishing that he had not fallen into this piece of folly. As long as no one but Grail and himself was concerned, it mattered nothing; to have established a secret intercourse with Thyrza was a result of his freak for which he was not at all prepared. And he could not see his way out of the difficulty. He might go and see Grail, and let him know what he was doing, but that would involve deliberate concealment of Thyrza's visits. He could not speak of them; he had no right to do so. If Thyrza on her part told all about it - why, that would make it, for him, still more unpleasant. And Thyrza was not likely to do that; he felt assured of it. Precisely; that meant that henceforth there would be a secret understanding between himself and Gilbert's wife. Most certainly he desired nothing of the kind.
A weak way of putting it. Walter dreaded anything of the kind. Two days - Monday, Tuesday - and in that brief time the whole face of the future had changed for him. On Sunday evening he had sat thinking over his future relations with Grail and Thyrza. The fact that he consciously brought himself to reflect upon the subject of course proved that it involved certain doubts and difficulties for him, but in half an hour he believed that he had put his mind in order. Thyrza interested him - why not say it out, as he was bent on understanding himself? She interested him more vitally than any girl he had ever known. Very possibly he saw her in the light of illusion; should his opportunities grant him a completer knowledge of her, he might not improbably discover that after all she was but a pretty girl of the people, attractive in a great measure owing to her very deficiencies. He would very likely come to laugh at himself for having thought that her value was above that of Annabel Newthorpe. But he had to deal with the present, and in the present Thyrza seemed to him all gold. Had there existed no Gilbert Grail, he would have been in love with Thyrza.
The plain truth. But Gilbert Grail did exist, and in Walter Egremont existed a sense of honour, a sense of shame. Should he by word or deed throw light upon Gilbert Grail's future, he felt that all the good of his own life would be at an end. He could not face man or woman again.
It came to this, then. Henceforth he must remember that, however near his intimacy with Gilbert, there must be no playing at friendship with Gilbert's wife. Friendship was impossible. That golden-haired girl had a power over him which, if ever so slightly and thoughtlessly exercised, might drive him into acts of insanity. He had seen her three times - this is Sunday night, remember - and yet the thought of Annabel was like a pale ghost beside his thought of her. He had till now suspected that his nature was not framed for passion; a few weeks had taught him that, if he allowed passion to take hold upon him, no part of his soul could escape the flame.
Two days had passed since then. On two successive mornings he had been alone with Thyrza; one evening he had spent at a concert, for the mere sake of being where Thyrza was, and feeling emotions such as he knew she would feel. 'No playing at friendship with Gilbert's wife.' And he had himself held out his band to her, had asked her to address him familiarly, had talked of things which brought them into closer communion, had - yes - had bidden her keep their interviews a secret from Gilbert. Had insanity begun?
A piece of folly; nothing else. As he walked towards Westminster, he viewed the situation, or tried to view it, as it is put in the second paragraph of this chapter. He had got into a very disagreeable position; he really must find some becoming way out of it; Thyrza was a silly girl to come a second time; of course the appointment for the following morning must not be kept. There was no harm in it all, none whatever, but --
Bah! The worst had come about; the miserable fate had declared itself; he was in love with Thyrza Trent!
He entered the Abbey. He seated himself in a shadowed place. Alone? Whose then was the voice that spoke to him unceasingly, and the hand which he was holding, which stirred his blood so with its warmth? 'Put aside every thought of the living fact; say that there is no Gilbert Grail in the world. You and I - you, Thyrza, my sweet-eyed, my beautiful - sit here side by side and hold each other's hands. Your voice has become very low and reverent, as befits the place, as befits the utterance of love such as this you say you bear me. What can I answer you, my golden one? Only, in voice low as your own, breathe that the world is barren but for you, that to the last drop of my heart's blood I love and worship you! A poor girl, a worker with her hands, untaught - you say that? A woman, pure of soul, with loveliness for your heritage, with possibilities imaginable in every ray of your eyes, in every note of the rare music of your voice!'
Even so. In the meantime, this happens to be Westminster Abbey, where a working man, one Gilbert Grail, has often walked and sought solace from the bitterness of his accursed lot, where he has thought of a young girl who lives above him in the house, and who, as often as she passes him, is like a gleam of southern sky somehow slipped into the blank hideousness of a London winter. Hither he has doubtless come to try and realise that fate has been so merciful to him that he longs to thank some unknown deity and cry that all is good. Hither he will come again, with one whom he calls his wife --
Walter rose and went forth, went home.
He had not been ten minutes in his room, when a servant appeared, to tell him that a lady had called and desired to see him, her name Mrs. Ormonde.
She came in, looking bright and noble as ever, giving him both her hands.
'I am glad to see you. I did not expect you to-day. Will you sit down?'
He did not know what he said. Mrs. Ormonde examined him, and for a moment kept silence.
'You have come up to-day?'
'Yes. I have come here direct from the station, because I wished to make use of you. But it seems to me that the doctor would have been a more fitting visitor. What has come to you, Walter?'
'It is true. I am not well. But always well enough to desire to serve you.'
'Though not, seemingly, to bear in mind my first wish. Why have you not answered my last letter, as I particularly asked you to? If you were ill, why have you remained here alone? I am angry with you.'
He was reflecting, as absorbedly as if she had not been in the room. She was his friend, if any man had one; she was of the priceless women who own both heart and brain. Should he speak out and tell her everything? If he did so, he was saved. He would leave town. Grail should come back, after the wedding holiday, and get on with the arrangement of the library under written directions. Illness would explain such a step. In a month, all would be right again.
Her eyes were searching him. Did she half know? He had written so foolishly in the letter about Thyrza. But it was impossible that she could divine such a thing. The circumstances made it too incredible.
'Tell me,' she went on. 'What has caused your illness?'
No, he could not. She would scorn him. And he could not bear to sink in her estimation. He could not seem childish before her.
'I have no idea,' he answered. 'Perhaps I have so accustomed myself to rambling over land and sea, that a year without change is proving too much for me. I must have the library started, and then be off - anywhere - a voyage to New Zealand!'
Mrs. Ormonde showed disappointment. She did not believe that this was the truth, even as he knew it. The truth was glimmering in the rear of her thoughts, but she would not allow it to come forward; in plain daylight it was really difficult to entertain. Still, as an instinct it was there, instinct supported even by certain pieces of evidence.
'You wish to go away? To go a distance - to be away for some time ?'
'Yes.' He did not meet her look. 'I don't think I shall get back my health till I do that. Don't let us talk of it.'
'What are you doing at the library?'
'Putting up books.'
'With Mr. Grail?'
'No. He doesn't leave the factory till the end of the week.'
'Then leave the place as it stands, and come to Eastbourne with me to-morrow.'
'I'm afraid I --'
'And so am I afraid,' she interrupted him gravely. 'I wish you to come to Eastbourne. I wish you to!'
'No, not to Eastbourne. I have reasons.'
Her eyes fell.
'But I promise you,' he continued, 'that I will leave town to-morrow. I promise you. Don't think me unkind that I refuse to come with you. I will go to Jersey again; it suits me. I'll stay there till Grail comes back with his wife, and then see if I feel well enough to come and go on with the work.'
'Very well,' Mrs. Ormonde replied, slowly.
'Do you doubt my word ?' he asked, moving forward to her.
'We are not so far as that, Walter.'
'And now tell me what I am to do for you.'
She hesitated, but only for a moment.
'I wish you to see Mr. Bunce for me. Do you meet him nowadays?'
'Not just now, but I can see him any time.'
'I want to arrange, if possible, to keep his child with me for some time, for a year or more. It is not impossible that her disease might be checked if she lived at Eastbourne, but in London she will very soon die. I should like to see Mr. Bunce myself, and I thought you might be able to arrange for a meeting between us. My idea is this: I shall tell him that the girl can make herself useful in the house, and that I wish to pay her for her services. The money would of course go to him, and he might use it to get help in his home. Bessie, the child, has explained to me all the difficulties in the way of her remaining with me; they are heightened by her father's character, as you can understand. Now do you think he would see me? He might come to my hotel, or he might come here, or if he allows me, I would go to him.'
'I will arrange it, somehow. Trust me, I will arrange it.'
'You should have said that with a wave of the hand, as omnipotent people do on the stage.'
'There is no feeling miserable with you. Have you not something of that mesmeric power which draws one back into health under a touch?'
'Perhaps. A little. My children sometimes show astonishing improvement, when they get fond of me.'
They talked of various things, but no mention was made of the Newthorpes by either.
'Is Paula back yet?' Mrs. Ormonde asked.
'I have no idea. I am not likely ever to see her again.'
'Oh, yes! When you come back from New Zealand. I shall go and see the Tyrrells this afternoon, I think. I have to dine with friends at Hampstead. When can I have the result of your inquiries?'
'I will come to you to-morrow morning.'
'At ten, please. I have a great deal to get into the day; and you yourself must be off by noon.'
'By noon I shall be.'
This visit had been happily timed. Sympathy was essential to Egremont as often as he suffered from the caprices of his temperament, and in grave trouble it was a danger for him to be left companionless. He was highly nervous, and the tumult of his imagination affected his bodily state in a degree uncommon in men, though often seen in delicately organised women. When Mrs. Ormonde left him he felt relieved in mind, but physically so brought down that he stretched himself upon the sofa. He remained there for more than an hour.
How much better, he was saying to himself, not to have told Mrs. Ormonde I That would have been a greater folly than anything yet. No irreparable harm was as yet done; to confess a mere state of mind would have been to fill his friend with fears wholly groundless, and to fix a lasting torture in his own memory. It would have been to render impossible any future work in Lambeth. Yet upon the continuance of such work practically depended Grail's future. To Gilbert Grail he had solemn duties to perform. Henceforth the scope of his efforts would be lessened; instead of exerting himself for a vague populace, it would really be for Grail alone that he worked. Grail he must and would aid to the end. It was a task worthy of a man who was not satisfied with average aims. He would crush this tyrannous passion in his heart, cost him what struggle it might, and the reward would be a noble one.
He rose at length with a haggard face. It was long past the hour at which he usually took his mid-day meal, and he had no appetite for food. He went to a restaurant, however, and made pretence of eating; thence into the smoking-room, where he spent the time till five o'clock, drinking coffee and reading papers. His only object now was to kill time.
At half-past eight he was in Lambeth. He knew Bunce's address, but had never before been in Newport Street. It was his habit to discover places by the aid of a map alone, and, thus guided, he found the house.
Totty Nancarrow happened to be on the stairs when he knocked; she had just come in. She ran down to the door. Egremont inquired for Bunce, and was told he was not at home, and would not be till very late.
'Do you know when I could be sure to find him here?'
'Yes,' replied Totty, who was able to guess at Egremont's identity, and examined him with some interest. ' He'll be here to-morrow after eight. He's on a job in Hammersmith, working late. But to-morrow's the last day, and he's sure to be back by eight o'clock.'
'He leaves early in the morning, I suppose?'
'At half-past five.'
'Thank you. I will call to-morrow evening. Gould you let him know that, from Mr. Egremont? I wish to see him particularly.'
'I'll let him know, sir.'
This was a mishap. It would necessitate another whole day in London.
He called upon Mrs. Ormonde next morning, at the hotel which it was her wont to use when in town for a day or two. At first she was strongly opposed to his waiting just on this account.
'I cannot go till I have done this for you,' he said firmly. 'I shall see Bunce to-night, and go away to-morrow. You must let me have my way in this.'
And he desired to remain for a weightier reason than the apparent one. It was this morning, Wednesday, that Thyrza would expect to find him at the library. She must be disappointed, and he would prove to himself that he was yet strong enough to resist, that he had not so lost self-control that his only safety lay in flight.
The strength was that of a man who combats desperately with some ailment which threatens his life. 'Am I then of those who have no will power? Will is that whereby men raise themselves above the multitude; let me give proofs now that my claims are not those of a charlatan.' He passed six hours in his room.
Thyrza would go to the library at eleven, or a little after. She was there now. She would find the front door closed against her. She would go round to the house, and make inquiry of Mrs. Butterfield. Perhaps she would wait for him.
Yes, she would wait for him. She was sitting in the library, on the chest which he had offered her for a seat, alone, disappointed.
Disappointed. More than that. Why had she come on Tuesday, the second morning? Why had she desired to come yet again? Had he read her face truly?
He knew, he knew with miserable certainty, that she did not love Grail. She had not known what love was; a child, so merely a child! But when love once was born in her, would it not be for life and death?
He was lying on the sofa again, his eyes fixed on the ceiling. Moisture stood upon his forehead, formed into beads and ran off. His torment was that of the rack. He believed that Thyrza had at least begun to love him. Madman that he was, he hoped it! Thyrza's love was a thing for which one would dare uttermost perdition, the blind leap once taken. Yes, but that leap he would not take; he was on firm ground; he knew what honour meant; he acknowledged the sanctity of obligations between man and man
But if she loved him, was it right that she should wed Grail? Obligations, forsooth! Was it not his first duty to save her from a terrible self-sacrifice? What could overrule love? There was time to intervene; four days more, and it would be too late for ever - for ever. What hideous things might result from conscientiousness such as he was now striving to preserve.
'Thyrza! She is waiting there, waiting for me to come to her. She trembles at every sound, thinking it my footstep. If her anguish be but the shadow of mine --'
He sprang up, ghastly. He had not closed his eyes through the night, but had lain, and walked about the room, in torment. Desire, jealousy, frenzy of first passion, the first passion of his life; no pang was spared him. Oh, how had it grown so suddenly! He had imagined love such as this for some stately woman whose walk was upon the heights of mind - some great artist - some glorious sovereign of culture. Instead of that, a simple girl who lived by her needle, who spoke faultily. And he loved her with the love which comes to a man but once.
The evening came at last. Long before it was really time to start for Lambeth, on his visit to Bunce, he began to walk southwards. He was at Westminster Bridge by half-past seven; probably it would be useless to call in Newport Street for another hour. He went down on to the Lambeth Embankment.
It was his hope that no acquaintance would pass this way. Still blameless in fact, he could not help a fear of being observed; the feeling could not have been stronger if he had come with the express purpose of seeking Thyrza. The air was cold; it blew at moments piercingly from the river. Where the sun had set, there was still a swarthy glow upon the clouds; the gas-lamps gave a haggardness to the banks and the bridges.
He walked at a quick pace; this way, then that. Workmen and women in numbers were hurrying in both directions. Egremont kept his face towards the river, that he might see no one. There was no likelihood that Thyrza would pass. If she did, if she were alone and saw him, he knew she would come up to him and speak.
The bell at Westminster struck out the hour of eight. He turned off the Embankment and went on to Lambeth Bridge, stopping at length to lean on the parapet at the same place where Gilbert had stood and mused one night when his happiness was almost too great to bear. To Egremont the darkening scene was in accord with the wearied misery which made his life one dull pain. London lay beneath the night like a city of hopeless toil, of aimless conflict, of frustration and barrenness. His philosophy was a sham, a spinning of cobwebs for idle hours when the heart is restful and the brain seeks to be amused. He had no more strength to bear the torture of an inassuageable desire than any foolish fellow who knew not the name of culture. He could not look forward to the day of forgetting; he would not allow himself to believe that he ever could forget.
But it was time now to go on to Newport Street. In Paradise Street, just before the railway arch, he glanced at the Bowers' shop, and dreaded lest Bower should meet him. But he saw no one that he knew before reaching Bunce's abode.
The landlady opened the door. Bunce was at home, and in a moment came down. He returned his visitor's greeting awkwardly, much wondering.
'Could I have a few words with you?' Egremont asked. 'I have come on Mrs. Ormonde's behalf - the lady at the Eastbourne home, you know. I have a message about your little girl.'
'Something happened?' Bunce inquired, in a startled voice.
'No, no; good news, if anything.'
Bunce did not willingly invite Egremont into his poor room, but he felt that he had no choice. He just said: 'Will you come upstairs, sir?' and led the way.
The two children were playing together on the floor; Bunce had been on the point of putting Nelly to bed. In spite of his mood, natural kindness so far prevailed with Egremont that he bent and touched the child's curls. Bunce, with set lips, stood watching; he saw that Egremont had not so much as cast an eye round the room, and that, together with the attention to his child, softened his naturally suspicious frame of mind.
'It's better than coming back to an empty room every night?' Egremont said, looking at the man.
'Yes, sir, it's better - though I don't always think so.'
'These two keep well?'
'There's never nothing the matter with me!' exclaimed young Jack, bluff though shamefaced.
'Nothing except your grammar, you mean, Jack,' replied his father. 'Will you just sit down, sir? I was afraid at first there was something wrong, when you mentioned Mrs. Ormonde.'
Egremont reassured him, and went on to say that Mrs. Ormonde was anxious to see him personally whilst she was in town. He felt it would be better not to explain the nature of the proposal Mrs. Ormonde was going to make, and affected to know nothing more than that she wished to speak of the child's health. Bunce had knitted his brows; his heavy lips took on a fretful sullenness. He knew that it was impossible to meet Egremont with flat refusals, and the prospect of being driven into something he intensely disliked worked him into an inward fume. He gave a great scrape on the floor with one of his heels as if he would have ploughed a track in the boards.
'I'm sorry,' he began, 'I've got no free time worth speaking of. I'm much obliged to the lady. But I don't see how I'm to --'
He wanted to blunder out words of angry impatience; his rising choler brought him to a full stop in the middle of the sentence.
Egremont addressed himself in earnest to the task persuasion. More was involved than mere benefit to the child's health; it was easy to see that Bunce's position was a miserable one, and Mrs. Ormonde, if once she could establish direct relations with the man, would doubtless find many a little way of being useful to him. He put it at length as a personal favour. Bunce again ploughed the floor, then blurted out:
'I'll go, Mr. Egremont. I'm not one to talk to ladies, as you can see yourself, but I can't help that. I shall have to go as I am.'
'Mrs. Ormonde will gladly come here, if you will let her.'
'I'd rather not, if you don't mind, sir.'
'Then it will be simplest if you go to my rooms in Great Russell Street, just by the British Museum. I leave town tomorrow; Mrs. Ormonde will be quite alone to meet you. Could you be there at nine o'clock?'
The appointment was made, Egremont leaving one of his cards to insure recollection of the address. Then he spoke a word or two to the children, and Bunce led him down to the door. They shook hands.
'I shall see you at the library soon, I hope,' Egremont said. 'You must give me your best help in making it known.'
The words sounded so hollow in his own ears that, as he turned to go along the dark street, he could have laughed at himself scornfully.
As Bunce reascended, someone met and passed him, hurrying with light feet and woman's garments silently.
'That you, Miss Nancarrow?' he asked, for there was no light on the staircase.
'No,' came a muffled reply. 'Miss Nancarrow isn't in.'
It was the voice of Thyrza Trent. Bunce did not recognise it, for he knew her too slightly.
She had come to the house not long before Egremont. After a day of suffering she wished to speak with Totty. Totty was the only one to whom she could speak now; Gilbert, her own Lyddy - them she dreaded. Notwithstanding the terms on which she had parted with her friend on Monday night, she felt an irresistible need of seeing her. It was one way, moreover, of passing a part of the evening away from Walnut Tree Walk. But Totty was out, had not yet come home since her work. Thyrza said she would go upstairs and wait.
She did so. Totty's room was dark and, of course, fireless; but she cared neither for the darkness nor the cold. She groped her way to a chair and sat very still. It was a blessed relief to be here, to be safe from Gilbert and Lyddy for ever so short a time, to sit and clasp the darkness like something loved. She was making up her mind to tell Totty everything. Someone she must tell - someone. Not Lyddy; that would be terrible. But Totty had a kind heart, and would keep the secret, perchance could advise in some way. Though what advice could anyone give?
What voice was that? She had heard someone knock at Bunce's door, then heard Bunce go down. He was coming up again, and someone with him - someone who spoke in a voice which made her heart leap. She sprang to the door to listen. Bunce and his companion entered the opposite room, and shut themselves in. Thyrza opened her door as softly as possible, leaned forward, listened. Yes, it was his voice!
What was he doing here? He had not come to the library, had not kept his promise. Was it not a promise to her? He had said that she should see him again, should be in the room alone with him, talk with him for one hour - one poor, short hour; and in the end it was denied. Why did he come to see Mr. Bunce? But he was well; nothing had happened to him, which all day had been her dread.
She would not try to overhear their conversation. Enough that he was safe in that next room, never mind for what purpose he came. She was near to him again.
She threw up her hands against the door, and leaned her face, her bosom on it. Her throat was so dry that she felt choking; her heart - poor heart! could it bear this incessant throbbing pain? She swallowed tears, and had some little bodily solace.
But if Totty should come! She hoped to be alone as long as he was there. It was so sweet to be near him, and alone!
And Totty did not come. Of a sudden the opposite door opened. He was leaving, going forth again she knew not whither - only that it was away from her.
Then desire became act. She heard the house-door close, and on the moment sped from the room. She scarcely knew what she said to Bunce on the stairs. Now she was in the street. Which way? There he was, there, at but a little distance.
But she must not approach him here, in this street. Any moment Totty might come - one of the Bowers might pass. She kept at an even remoteness, following him. Into Paradise Street, into High Street, out into Lambeth Road, with the bridge in sight. He meant to go along the Embankment. But it was quieter here. A quickened step, almost a run, and she was by his side.
'Mr. Egremont. I thought it was you. I wanted --'
They were under the church. As Thyrza spoke, the bells suddenly broke out with their harsh clanging; they had been ringing for the last twenty minutes, and were now recommencing after a pause.
Egremont glanced towards the tower, startled and seemingly annoyed.
'I'm very sorry I couldn't come to the library this morning, Miss Trent,' he said, very formally. 'I was unexpectedly kept away.'
What automaton had taken his place and spoke in this contemptible tone of conventional politeness?
'Those bells are so loud,' Thyrza said, complainingly. 'I wanted to - to ask you something. May I go with you a little further - just to the bridge?'
He said nothing, but looked at her and walked on. They entered the bridge. Egremont still advanced, and Thyrza kept by him, till they were nearly on the Westminster side of the river. Very few people passed them, and no vehicles disturbed the quiet of the dark road along the waterside. On the one hand was a black mass of wharfs, a few barges moored in front; on the other, at a little distance, the gloomy shape of Millbank prison. The jangle of the bells was softened.
'They certainly might be more musical,' Egremont said, with a forced laugh. 'I should not care to live in one of the houses just under the church.'
She was speaking.
'I waited this morning. Oh, it didn't matter; but I was afraid - I thought you might have had some accident, Mr. Egremont.'
'No. It was business that prevented me from coming. But you wish to ask me something, Miss Trent?'
'If you will be there to-morrow - that was all. I like helping. I like looking at the books, and putting them up - if you would let me.'
The nearest lamp showed him her face. What held him from making that pale loveliness his own? His heart throbbed as terribly as hers; he with difficulty heard when she spoke, so loud was the rush of blood in his ears.
But he had begun the fight with himself. He could not turn away abruptly and leave her standing there; if the victory were to be won, it must be by sheer wrestle with the temptation, for her sake as well as his own. To let her so much as suspect his feeling were as bad as to utter it; nay, infinitely worse, for it would mean that he must not see her after to-night. He and she would then be each other's peril in a far direr sense than now.
He replied to her
'I'm so sorry; I shall not be there to-morrow. I have to go out of London.'
He looked her in the face unwaveringly. It was the look which tormented her, not that which she yearned for. She could not move away her eyes.
'You are going away, Mr. Egremont?'
'Yes, I am going out of England for a week or two - perhaps for longer.'
It was wrong - all wrong. In spite of himself he could not but admit a note of pathos. The automatic voice of politeness would not come at his bidding. He should have left her on the other side of the bridge, where the harsh bells allowed no delicacies of tone.
'To France?' she asked.
'No. To an island very near France. I must not keep you standing here, Miss Trent. It is very cold.'
Yes, the wind was cold, but perspiration covered his face.
'Please - only a minute. May I go to the library and do some more of the books? Are they all finished?'
'No. There's still one case of them, and more will be coming. Certainly you may go there if you wish.'
Her voice fell.
'But I shan't know how to put them. No, I can't do it alone.'
'I shall write to Mr. Grail, and tell him what I have been doing. You can help him.'
The monosyllable fell from her like a whisper of despair. But the utterance of Grail's name had brought Egremont the last impulse he needed.
'When I come back,' he said, 'I shall find you in your new home. As I shan't see you again, let me say now how much I hope that you will live there a long time and very happily. Good-bye, Miss Trent.'
Surely that was formal and automatic enough. Not one more word, not one more glance at her face. He had touched her hand, had raised his hat, was gone.
She stood gazing after him until, in a minute or two, he was lost in the dark street behind the wharfs. So suddenly! He had scarcely said good-bye - so poor a good-bye! She had vexed him with her importunities; he wished to show her that she had not behaved in the way that pleased him. Scarcely a good-bye!
She went to the end of the bridge, and there crept into a dark place whither no eye could follow her. Her strength was at an end. She fell to her knees; her head lay against something hard and cold; a sob convulsed her, and then in the very anguish of desolation she wept. The darkness folded her; she could lie here on the ground and abandon herself to misery. She wept her soul from her eyes.
But for Egremont the struggle was not over. He had scarcely passed out of her sight when fear held his steps. Thyrza must not he left there alone. That face of hers, looking like marble, threatened despair. How could he leave her so far from home, in the night, by the river?
He went back. He knew what such return meant. It was defeat after all. He knew what his first word to her would be.
He sought her now, sought her that she might never leave him again. The flood of passion was too strong; that moment of supreme restraint had but massed the waters into overwhelming power. It was the thought of danger to her that had ended all pity for Gilbert.
She was not in sight. Could she have passed the bridge so quickly? He ran forward. True, it must be more than five minutes since he had left her, much more, perhaps, for he could not judge how long he had stood battling with him. self behind the wharfs.
A policeman stood at the end of the bridge. Egremont asked him if a young girl had just passed. Yes, such a one had gone by a minute or two ago.
He ran on, past the church, into High Street. But would she go this way? A girl crossed the road a little way ahead, into Paradise Street. He overtook her, only to be disappointed.
At the end of Newport Street a man stood, waiting. It was Gilbert Grail; he had come in the hope of meeting Thyrza, who, Lydia had told him, was gone to see Totty Nancarrow. He was greatly anxious about her.
Egremont, coming up at a swift pace recognised Gilbert and stopped. They shook hands. Grail was silent, Egremont began to stammer words. He had been to see Bunce, just now, for such and such reasons, with such and such results. But he could not stop, he had an engagement. Good-night!
The shame of it! He found himself in Lambeth Walk, no longer searching, anxious only to get away from the sight of men. Thyrza must be home by this time. That speech with Gilbert had chilled him, and now he was hot with self-contempt. He made his way out into Westminster Bridge Road, thence walked to his own part of the town.
This Wednesday morning Lydia went to her work reluctantly. Thyrza was so strange; it looked as if she was going to have an illness. Again there had been a night of sleeplessness; if the girl fell for a moment into slumber she broke from it with an inarticulate cry as if of fear. It was now nearly a week since Thyrza had really slept through the night, but it was growing worse. She was feverish; she muttered, so that Lydia was terrified lest she had become delirious. And there was no explaining it all. The excitement of the concert, surely, could not have such lasting results; indeed, Thyrza seemed no longer to give a thought to the music. All she begged for was that she might be allowed to remain alone. She did not wish Mrs. Grail to come up to the room. She said she would go out in the course of the morning, and that would do her good.
So Lydia went forth reluctantly. At the entrance to the factory she met Totty Nancarrow. They just gave each other a good-morning. Totty seemed dull. She did not run up the stairs as usual, but walked with a tired step.
Lydia, following her, broke her habit, and spoke.
'Thyrza isn't at all well.'
'Isn't she?' said the other, without turning her head, and in a tone of little interest.
Lydia bit her lip, vexed that she had said anything.
They came into the work-room. There were a number of tables, at which girls and women were beginning to seat themselves. A portion of the room was divided off by a glass partition, and within the little office thus formed sat the fore-woman, surrounded with felt hats, some finished, some waiting for the needle to line them and put the band on. Sitting here, she overlooked the workers, some fifty when all were assembled.
There was much buzzing and tittering and laughing aloud. All belonged to the class of needlewomen who preserve appearances; many of them were becomingly dressed, and none betrayed extreme poverty. Probably a fourth came from homes in which they were not the only wage-earners, and would not starve if work slackened now and then, having fathers or brothers to help them. Whether they liked coming to work or not, all showed much cheerfulness at the commencement of the day. They greeted each other pleasantly, sometimes affectionately, and not one who lacked a story of personal incident to be quickly related to a friend whilst the work was being given out. So much seemed to happen in the hours of freedom.
Lydia was much quieter than usual. It was not her wont to gossip of her own affairs, or to pry into the secrets of her acquaintances; but with the little group of those with whom she was intimate she had generally some piece of merriment to share, always marked by kindness of feeling. She was a favourite with the most sensible girls of her own age. Thyrza had never been exactly a favourite, though some older than herself always used to pet her, generally causing her annoyance.
About a quarter of an hour had passed, and work was getting into trim, when a girl, a late arrival, in coming to her place, handed Lydia a letter.
'Someone downstairs asked me to give it you,' she whispered. 'You needn't blush, you know.'
Lydia was too surprised to manifest any such self-consciousness. She murmured thanks, and looked at the address. It was a man's writing, but she had no idea whose. She opened the envelope and found Ackroyd's short note.
What did this mean? It at once flashed across Lydia's mind that there might be some connection between this and Thyrza's strange disorder. Old habit still brought Ackroyd and Thyrza together in her thoughts. Yet how was it possible? Ackroyd was engaged to Totty Nancarrow, and Thyrza had never shown the least interest when she mentioned him of late. Was he going to make trouble, now at the last moment, when everything seemed to have taken the final form?
Since Thyrza's engagement to Gilbert, there was no longer need of subtle self-deceptions, but, though she might now freely think of him, Lydia soon found that Ackroyd was not the same in her eyes. The first rumours of his abandonment to vulgar dissipation she utterly refused to credit, but before long she had to believe them in spite of herself. She saw him one night coming out of a public-house, singing a drunken song. It was a terrible blow to her; she had to question herself much, and to make great efforts to understand a man's nature. She had thought him incapable of such things. The vague stories of earlier wildness she had held no account of. When a woman says 'Oh, that is past,' she means 'It does not exist, and never did exist.'
It surprised her that she still thought of him with heartache. Her quarrel with Mary Bower seemed an encouragement to the love she kept so secret. She found a thousand excuses for him; she pitied him deeply; she longed to go and speak to him. Why could she not do so? Often and often she rehearsed conversations with him, in which she told him how unworthy it was to fall so, and implored him for his own sake to be a man again. She might have realised such a dialogue - though it would have cost her much - but for the news that he had begun to pay attention to Totty Nancarrow.
Then she knew jealousy. Of Thyrza she could not be jealous, but to imagine him giving his affection to a girl like Totty Nancarrow made her rebellious and scornful. How little could any of her work-room companions know what was passing in Lydia's breast when she had one of her days of quietness and bent with such persistence over her sewing! If spoken to, she raised the same kind, helpful face as ever; you could not imagine that a minute ago a tear had all but come to her eyes, that in thought she had been uttering words of indignant passion. They were rare, those days in which she could not be quite herself. It was not her nature to yield when weakness tempted.
And now he had written to her. Having read the note, she put it into the bosom of her dress, and, whilst her fingers were busy, she turned over every possible explanation in her mind. She knew that he had abandoned his evil habits of late, and she could be just enough not to refuse Totty some credit for the change. Gilbert himself had said that the girl's influence seemed on the whole good. But some mystery was now going to reveal itself. It concerned Thyrza; she was sure it did. The fact that the note was delivered in this way, and the request for secrecy which it contained, made this certain.
At dinner-time, and again in the evening, Thyrza was still in the same state of depression and feverishness. Lydia said nothing of the business which would take her out at eight o'clock. When the time came, and she had to make an excuse, Thyrza said that she too would go out; she wanted to see Totty.
'You'll tell Gilbert?' Lydia replied, afraid to make any opposition herself.
'No. He'd say it wasn't good for me to go out, and I want to go. You won't say anything, Lyddy?'
'I ought to, dear. You're not well enough to go, that's quite certain.'
'I won't be long. I must go just for half an hour.'
'Why do you want to see her?' Lydia asked, masking her curiosity with a half-absent tone.
'Oh, nothing to explain. I feel I want to talk, that's all.'
From time to time - in her more difficult moments - Lydia had felt a little hurt that the course of circumstances made no difference in Thyrza's friendship for Totty. When her truer mind was restored, she knew that the reproach was a foolish one. More likely it was she herself who was to blame for having always nourished a prejudice against Totty. At present, Thyrza's anxiety to go out was another detail connecting itself with Ackroyd's summons. Something unexplained was in progress between those three, Totty and Ackroyd and Thyrza. Her resentment against the first of them revived.
She would soon know what it all meant. Thyrza and she left the house together and went in opposite directions. Lydia crossed Kennington Road, and found Luke waiting for her. She approached him with veiled eyes.
'I'm so glad you've come,' he began, with signs of disturbance, 'It's kind of you to come. I have a great deal to say, and I can't speak here. Will you come round into Walcot Square? - it'll be quieter.'
She said nothing, but walked beside him. It was a new and strange sensation to be thus accompanying Ackroyd.
She was conscious that her pulses quickened. They went on in silence till they reached the spot which Luke had mentioned, an irregular little square, without traffic, dark.
'I don't know how to begin to tell you, Miss Trent,' Ackroyd said, when he stopped and turned towards her. 'It's your sister I have to speak about.'
She had foreseen truly. Her heart sank.
'What can you have to say about my sister, Mr. Ackroyd?' she asked in a hard voice.
'I'm not surprised that you speak in that way. I know that I shall seem a busybody, or perhaps something worse, meddling with things that don't concern me. It would be easier for me to leave it alone, but I couldn't do that, because I can't think of you and your sister as strangers. I've heard something said about Thyrza that you ought to know. Be friendly to me, and believe I'm only telling you this because I think it's my duty.'
Lydia was looking at him in astonishment.
'You've heard something? What? What has anybody to say about my sister?'
'I shall make no secret of anything - it's the only way to prove I'm behaving honestly to you. I was at the club last night, and Bower came and sat down by me, and he began to talk about Thyrza. He said it looked strange that she should be alone with Mr. Egremont in the library every morning. The woman that takes care of the place told him about it, and he's seen Thyrza himself coming away at dinner-time, when Mr. Egremont was there. He says she goes to help him to put books on the shelves. He spoke of it in a way that showed he was telling the story to all sorts of people, and in a way that means harm. I'd sooner bite my tongue out than repeat such things about your sister, if it wasn't that you ought to know. I might have told Grail, but I felt it was better to see you first. I know I'm making trouble enough any way, but I believe you will give me credit for acting honestly. Don't think of me as the kind of man I've seemed since Christmas. You used to think well of me, and you must do so now, Miss Trent. I'm speaking as a true friend.'
He hurried out his words of self-justification, for he saw the anger in her face.
'And you believe this?' Lydia exclaimed, when she could use her voice. 'You believe a man that will go saying things like this about my sister? Why is he trying to do us harm? Why, there is no books to put on the shelves! No books have come to the library yet!'
She laughed scornfully, and, before he could speak, continued with the same vehemence.
'What have we done to Mr. Bower? I suppose it's because we're not so friendly with them as we were. So he does his best to take away our good name, and to ruin Thyrza's life! Of course, I knew very well what you mean. I know what he means. He's a cruel coward! It's a lie that he's seen Thyrza coming out of the library! Why, I tell you there is no books there! How could she help to put them on the shelves? You shall come with me this minute to the Bowers' house! You can't refuse to do that, Mr. Ackroyd: it's only fair, it's only justice. You shall come and repeat to them all you've told me, and then see if he'll dare to say it again. I'm glad you didn't tell Gilbert; you was right to tell me first. I'm not angry with you; you mustn't think that; though you speak as if you believed his lies. I should have thought you knew Thyrza better. Come with me, this minute! You shall come, if you're an honest man, as you say you are!'
She laid her hand upon his arm. Ackroyd took the hand and held it whilst he compelled her to listen to him.
'Lydia, we can't go till you've heard everything. I've got more to tell you.'
'More? What is it? A man that 'll say so much 'll say anything. You've told me quite enough, I should think, considering it's about my own sister.'
'But, Lydia, do listen to me, my poor girl! Try and quiet yourself, and listen to me. There's nothing more of Bower's telling; he didn't say any more; and there was more harm in his way of telling it than in the story itself. But I have something to tell you that I've found out myself.'
She looked him in the face. Her hand she had drawn away.
'And you are going to say harm of Thyrza!' she said under her breath, eyeing him as though he were her deadliest enemy.
'Think and say of me what you like, Lydia. I've got something that I must tell you; if I don't, I'd a deal better never have said anything at all. You're not right about the library. There are books there, and Mr. Egremont has been busy with them of a morning.'
'But how can you know better than Gilbert?' she cried.
'I know, because I went last night to find out. As soon as I'd heard Bower's tale, I went. And I was there again to-day, at dinner-time, and I saw your sister come out of the door.'
She was silent. In spite of her passionate exclamations, a suspicion had whispered within her from the first, a voice to which she would lend no ear. Now she was constrained to think. She remembered Thyrza's lateness at dinner on Monday; she remembered that Thyrza had been from home each morning this week. And if it were true that books had arrived at the library, and that Gilbert knew nothing of it - Was this the explanation of Thyrza's illness, of her inexplicable agitations, of her sleeplessness?
She could not raise her head. Ackroyd too kept silent. She asked at length: 'Have you anything more to tell me?'
'Yes, I have something more. It's another thing that I found out last night, after leaving Bower. Say that you don't accuse me of conduct as bad as Bower's!' he added, vehemently. 'I must tell you everything, and it makes me seem as if I told it for the sake of telling. Say you believe in my honesty, at all events!'
'I don't accuse you of anything,' she replied, still under her breath. 'What is it you have to say?'
'I went to see Miss Nancarrow. I had no thought of repeating the story to her - you must believe me or not, as you like, but I am telling you the truth. I wanted to see if she had heard anything from the Bowers, and I wanted to try and find out, if I could, whether Thyrza had told her any secret. It wasn't out of a wish to pry into things I'd no concern with, but because I felt afraid for Thyrza, and because I wanted to be sure that there was sufficient reason for it before I came to you to put you on your guard. I said to Totty: 'Have you any reason to think that Thyrza cares for somebody else more than for Grail?' She got angry at once. and said she knew all about it, that she'd no patience with Thyrza, and that she wasn't going to have anything more to do with the affair. I've told you plainly, Lydia, told you everything. I hope I've done it for the best.'
She stood as if she heard nothing. Her arms hung down; her eyes were fixed on the ground. She was thinking that now she understood Thyrza's urgency in wishing to see Totty. Now she understood everything.
She moved, as if to go away. Ackroyd could find no word. All he had to say was so much sheer cruelty, and to attempt comfort would be insult. But Lydia faced him again.
'And you think the worst of my sister?'
Again her look was defiant. She had no enemy in the world like the man who could accuse Thyrza of guilt. It was one thing to point out that Thyrza was in danger of being columniated, another to believe that the evil judgment was merited.
'I don't think the worst of her, Lydia,' he replied, firmly. 'I think it likely that she has been doing something very thoughtless, and I am quite sure that that man Egremont has been doing something for which he deserves to be thrashed. But no more than that. More than that I won't believe!'
'Thank you, Mr. Ackroyd! A minute ago I hated you, now I know that I have always been right in thinking you had a good heart. Thyrza may have been foolish in keeping things from me, but she's no more to blame than that. You can believe me. I would say it, if it was my life or death!'
He took her hand and pressed it.
'And you think Mr. Bower is telling everyone?' she asked, her voice wonderfully changed, for all at once she became a woman, and felt her need of a strong man's aid.
'I'm afraid so. When he'd done his tale to me last night, I told him that if he hadn't been a man so much older than myself I'd have struck him in face of all in the club. I'd perhaps better not have angered him, but it wouldn't make much difference. He's got ill feeling against Egremont, I believe.'
Lydia's eyes flashed when she heard of that speech to Bower.
'And you think he's doing this more to harm Mr. Egremont than Thyrza?'
'I do. He's a gossiping fool, but I don't believe he'd plot to ruin a girl in this way. Still, I'm quite sure the story 'll have got about, and it comes to the same thing.'
Both stood in thought. Lydia felt as if all the bright future were blasted before her eyes. Thyrza loved Egremont. Egremont was the falsest of friends to Gilbert, the most treacherous of men. Her darling had been artfully drawn by him into this secret intercourse; and how was it all to end?
'I must go home to Thyrza, Mr. Ackroyd. I don't know what to do, but it will come to me when I see my sister.'
She reflected a moment, then added:
'She went to see Totty Nancarrow, at the same time when I came out. Perhaps she'll be there still. If I don't find her at home, I must go to the other house. Good-bye!'
'I do wish I could be some help to you, Lydia!' he said, holding her hand and looking very kindly at her.
'You can't. Nobody can help. Whatever happens Thyrza and me will be together, and I shall keep her from harm. But you've been a good friend to me to-night, Mr. Ackroyd. I can't do more than say I'm grateful to you. I shall be that, as long as I live.'
'Lydia - I don't want to pry into anything between you and your sister, but if I can do anything to be of use to her - or to you - you'll tell me? You could easily send a message to me.'
'Thank you. I will ask you if there is anything. Let me go home alone, Mr. Ackroyd.'
She came to the house, and saw that there was no light in the window of their room. Still, Thyrza might be sitting there. She ran upstairs. The room was vacant.
Then she hurried to Newport Street. Mrs. Ladds told her that Totty had not come in yet, and that Thyrza had been and was gone away again. She turned on her steps slowly, and after a short uncertainty went home again, in the hope that Thyrza might have returned. As she entered, Gilbert met her in the passage.
'Is Thyrza come back?' she asked.
'No, she isn't in the house. Where did she go to?'
'She went just to see Totty Nancarrow.' Nothing was to be gained by concealing this now. 'I've been there, but she's gone away. I dare say she'll be back in a few minutes.'
Lydia went upstairs, not feeling able to talk. Gilbert, who since Monday had fallen into ever deeper trouble, left the house and walked towards Newport Street, hoping to find Thyrza. It was thus that he came to be met by Egremont. He was back in half an hour. Lydia came down when she heard him enter.
'Lydia,' he said, gravely, 'you shouldn't have allowed her to go out. She isn't in a fit state to leave the house.'
'It was wrong, I know,' she said, standing just inside the door of the parlour.
Gilbert mentioned that he had seen Egremont. Before she could check herself, Lydia exclaimed:
He looked at her in surprise. She turned very pale. Mrs. Grail was also gazing at her.
'It was at the end of Newport Street,' Gilbert replied. 'Why are you so anxious to know where?'
'I'm sure I don't know. I'm worrying so about that child. I spoke without thinking at all.'
Half an hour more passed, then, as all sat silently together, they heard the front door opening. Lydia started up.
'Don't move, Gilbert! Let me go up with her. She'll be afraid of being scolded.'
She went out into the passage. The little lamp hung against the wall as usual, and when by its light she saw Thyrza, she was made motionless by alarm. Not only was the girl's face scarcely recognisable; her clothing was stained and in disorder.
'Thyrza!' she whispered. 'My darling, what has happened?'
The other, with a terrified look at the Grails' door, ran past and up the stairs, speaking no word. Her sister followed.
In the room, Thyrza did not sit down, though her whole body trembled. She took off her hat, and tried to undo her jacket.
'What is it?' Lydia asked, coming near to her. 'Where have you been? What's made you like this?'
She was almost as pale as her sister, and fear pressed on her throat. Knowing what she did, she imagined some dreadful catastrophe. Thyrza seemed unable to speak, and her eyes were so wild, so pain-stricken, that they looked like madness. She tried to smile, and at length said disconnectedly:
'It's nothing, Lyddy - only frightened - somebody - a drunken man - frightened me, and I fell down. Nothing else!'
Lydia could make no reply. She did not believe the story. Silently she helped to remove the jacket, and led Thyrza to a chair. Then she drew the dear head to her and held it close against her breast.
'You are so cold, Thyrza! Where have you been? Tell me, tell Lyddy!'
'Totty wasn't at home. I walked a little way. Gilbert doesn't know? You haven't told him?'
'No, no, dear, it's all right. Come nearer to the fire: oh, how cold you are! Sit on my lap, dearest; rest your head against me. Why have you been crying, Thyrza?'
There was no answer. Held thus in her sister's arms, Thyrza abandoned herself, closed her eyes, let every limb hang as it would, tried to be as though she were dead. Lydia thought at first that she had lost consciousness, but her cry brought an answer. They sat thus for some minutes.
Then Thyrza whispered:
'I'm poorly, Lyddy. Let me go to bed.'
'You shall, dear. I'll sit by you. You'll let me stay by you?'
As her clothes were removed she shook feverishly.
'They won't come up?' she asked several times. 'Mrs. Grail won't come? Go and tell them I've got a headache, and that it'll be all right in the morning.'
'They won't come, dear. Get into bed, and I'll go and tell them directly.'
She could have wept for misery, but she must be strong for Thyrza's sake. Whatever hope remained depended now upon her own self-command and prudence. When Thyrza had lain down, Lydia succeeded in showing almost a cheerful face.
'I'll just go down and say you're poorly. You won't move till I come back?'
Thyrza shook her head.
Her sister was only away for a minute or two. She reentered the room panting with the speed she had made. And she sat down at the bedside.
There was no word for a long time. Thyrza's eyes were closed; her lips quivered every now and then with a faint sob. The golden braid, which Lydia had not troubled to undo, lay under her cheek.
Lydia held counsel with herself. Something had happened, something worse, she thought, than a mere fit of wretchedness in the suffering heart. There was no explaining the disordered state in which the girl had come back.
Gilbert said that he had met Mr. Egremont at the end of Newport Street. Was it conceivable that Thyrza had had an appointment with Egremont at Totty's house? No; that was not to be credited, for many reasons. Totty - by Luke's account - was angry with Thyrza, and refused to hear anything of what was going on. Yet it was very strange that he should be going to see Mr. Bunce just at the same time that Thyrza was there, and in Totty's absence too.
What to think of Mr. Egremont? There was the central question. She knew him scarcely at all; had only seen him on that one occasion when she opened the house-door to him, There was Gilbert's constant praise of him, but Lydia knew enough of the world to understand that Gilbert might very easily err in his judgment of a young man in Egremont's position. Ackroyd seemed to have no doubt at all; he had said at once that Egremont deserved to he thrashed. Clearly he believed the worst of Egremont, attributed to him a deliberate plot. If he was right, then what might not have befallen?
She had said to herself that she would not dishonour her sister by fearing more than a pardonable weakness. Now there was a black dread closing in upon her.
How to act with Thyrza? Must she reveal all that Ackroyd told her, and so compel a confession?
Not that, if it could possibly be avoided. It would drive Thyrza to despair. No; it must be kept from her that prying eyes had watched her going and coming. Already it might be too late; the marriage with Gilbert might he impossible, if only because Thyrza would inevitably betray her love for Egremont; but there was all the future to think of, and Thyrza must not be driven to some irreparable folly.
There was one hypothesis which Lydia quite left aside. She did not ask herself whether Egremont might not truly and honestly love her sister. It was natural enough that she should not think of it. Every tradition weighed in favour of rascality on the young man's part, and Lydia's education did not suffice to raise her above the common point of view in such a matter. A gentleman did not fall in love with a work-girl, not in the honest sense. Lydia had the prejudices of her class, and her judgment went full against Egremont from the outset. He had encouraged secret meetings, the kind of thing to be expected. He must have known perfectly what a blow he was preparing for Gilbert, if the fact of these meetings should be discovered. What did he care for that? His selfishness was proof against every scruple, no doubt.
She could not argue as an educated person might have done. Egremont's zeal in his various undertakings made no plea for his character, in her mind. To be sure, a more subtle reasoner might have given it as little weight, but that would have been the result of conscious wisdom. Lydia could only argue from her predisposition regarding the class of 'gentlemen.' We know how she had shrunk from meeting Egremont. Guided by Gilbert and Thyrza, she had taught herself to think well of him, but, given the least grounds of suspicion, class-instinct was urgent to condemn.
Only one way recommended itself to her, and that the way of love. She must lead Thyrza to confide in her, must get at the secret by constraint of tenderness. She might seem to suspect, but the grounds of her suspicion must be hidden.
Having resolved this, she leaned nearer and spoke gentle words such as might soothe. Thyrza made no response, save that she raised her lids and looked wofully.
'Dear one, what is it you're keeping from me?' Lydia pleaded. 'Is it kind, Thyrza, is it kind to me? It isn't enough to tell me you're poorly; there's more than that. Do you think I can look at you and not see that you have a secret from me?'
Thyrza had closed her eyes again, and was mute.
'Dear, how can you be afraid of me, your old Lyddy? When there's anything you're glad of, you tell me; oughtn't I to know far more when you're in trouble? Speak to me, dear sister! I'll put my head near yours; whisper it to me! How can I go on in this way? Every day I see you getting worse. I'm miserable when I'm away at work; I haven't a minute's peace. Be kind to me, and say what has happened.'
There was silence.
'Do you think there's anything in me but love for you, my dearest, my Thyrza? Do you think I could say a cruel word, tell me whatever you might? Do you think I shan't love you only the better, the more unhappy you are? Perhaps I half know what it is, perhaps --'
Thyrza started and gazed with the same wildness as when she first came in.
'You know? What do you know? Tell me at once, Lyddy!'
'I don't really know anything, love - it's only that I can't help thinking - I've noticed things.'
Thyrza raised herself upon one arm. She was terror-stricken.
'What have you noticed? Tell me at once! You've no right to say things of that kind! Can't I be poorly without you talking as if I'd done something wrong? What have I done? Nothing, nothing! Leave me alone, Lyddy! Go downstairs, and leave me to myself!'
'But you don't understand me,' pleaded the other. 'I don't think you've done anything, but I know you're in trouble - how can I help knowing it?'
'But you said you've noticed things. What do you mean by that? You'd no right to say it if you don't mean anything! You're trying to frighten me! I can't bear you sitting there! I want to be alone! If you must stay in the room, go away and sit by the fire. Haven't you no sewing to do? You've always got plenty at other times. Oh, you make me feel as if I should go mad!'
Lydia withdrew from the bedside. She sat down in a corner of the room and covered her face with her hands.
Thyrza fell back exhausted. She had wrought herself almost to hysteria, and, though she could not shed tears, the dry sobs seemed as if they would rend her bosom.
Minutes passed. She turned and looked at her sister. Lydia was bent forward, propping her forehead.
'Lyddy, I want you.'
Lydia came forward. She had been crying. She fell on her knees by the bed.
'Lyddy, what did you mean? It's no good denying it, you meant something. You said you'd noticed things You've no right to say that and say no more.
'You won't tell me what your secret is without me saying what I've thought?'
'I've got no secret! I don't know what you mean by secret!'
'Thyrza - have you - have you seen Mr. Egremont tonight?'
They looked at each other. Thyrza's lips were just parted; she drew herself back, as if to escape scrutiny. The arm with which she supported herself trembled violently.
'Why do you ask that?' she said, faintly.
'That's what I meant, Thyrza,' the other whispered, with a face of fear.
'Have I seen Mr. Egremont? I don't know what you're thinking of? Why should I see Mr. Egremont? What have I to do with him?'
Lydia put her hand forward and touched her sister.
'Thyrza!' she cried, passionately. 'Tell me! Tell me everything! I can't bear it! If you have ever so little love for me in your heart - tell me!'
Thyrza could no longer keep her raised position. She fell back. Then with one hand she caught the railing at the head of the bed and held it convulsively, whilst she buried her face in the pillow.
Lydia bent over her, and said in low, quick tones:
'I think no harm of you! Perhaps you've got to like him too much, and he's persuaded you to go to meet him. It's only what I've thought to myself. Tell me, and let me be a sister to you; let me help you! No one else shall hear a word of it, Thyrza. Only Lyddy! We'll talk about it, and see what can be done. You shall tell me how it began - tell me all there is in your heart, poor child. It'll comfort you to speak of it. The secret is killing you, my darling. There's no harm - none - none! You couldn't help it. Only let us both know, and talk to each other about it, like sisters!'
Thyrza's grasp of the iron loosened, and her hand fell. She turned her face to the light again.
'Lyddy, how do you know this?'
'I thought it. You've been out every morning. You spoke of him in a way --'
'Has any one said anything to you? Has Gilbert?'
'No, no! Gilbert hasn't such a thought. It's all myself. Oh, what has he been saying to you, Thyrza?'
A change was coming about in the sufferer. What had at the first suggestion been a terror now grew upon her as an assuagement of pain. She clung to her sister's hand.
'I don't know how it began,' she whispered. 'It seems so sudden; but I think it's been coming for a long time. Ever since I saw him that day at the library - the first time I ever saw him. Ever since, there hasn't been a day I haven't thought of him. I never saw any one else that made me think like that. Day and night, Lyddy! But it didn't trouble me at first. It was only after I came back from Eastbourne. I seemed to think of everything in a different way after that. I dreamt of him every night, and I did so want to see him. I don't know why. Then I saw him at last - on Monday - at the library.'
'You hadn't met him - alone - before then?'
'No, never since that first time.'
'But why did you go there on Monday?'
'Oh, I can't - can't think! Something seemed to tell me to go there. I found there was some books come, and he was putting them on the shelves. He said he didn't want Gilbert to know - just for fun - and I promised not to say anything.'
'You mean last Monday? This week?'
'Yes. Not before then. And it seems - oh, it seems a month ago, Lyddy!'
She lay back, pressing Lydia's hand against her heart.
'But did he ask you to go again, dear?'
'No, he didn't. It was all myself. Lyddy, I couldn't keep away. I couldn't. Will you believe I'm telling the truth? I tried - I did try so hard! I knew I oughtn't to go, because I wanted to so much. I knew it was wrong. I don't think I should have gone if Mrs. Grail hadn't forced me to go out for a walk, because she said it would take my headache away. I was holding myself back all the morning. And when I got out - I couldn't help it - I was drawn there! And then I asked him if I might come again to-day. He said I might, but I could see he thought it was wrong of me. And, Lyddy, he never came. I stayed there waiting. Oh, do you know what I suffered? I can't tell you!'
'My dearest, I know, I feel with you! But it will be better now you've told me. And to-night? Didn't you see him to-night?'
'How do you know? Who told you?' she asked, nervously.
'No one, dear. I only think it. The way you came in --'
Thyrza suddenly bent forward, listening.
'Can any one hear us?' she whispered. 'Go and see any one's outside.'
'There's no one, dear.'
'Go and look. I'm afraid.'
Lydia went and opened the door. She closed it again, and came back shaking her head.
'I didn't think I should see him,' Thyrza continued. 'I was waiting in Totty's room, and he came to see Mr. Bunce. I heard his voice. When he went away, I followed him. I couldn't help myself. I would have given my life for a word from him. I wanted to know why he hadn't come this morning. I followed him, and walked with him over the bridge. Then he told me he was going away, somewhere out of England, and I shouldn't see him again till after - after I was married.'
She choked. Lydia soothed her again, and she continued, with growing agitation:
'Then he said good-bye - he went away very quickly, after just saying he hoped I should be happy. Happy! How can I be happy? And when he was gone, I went somewhere and fell down and cried - somewhere where nobody could see me. He's gone, Lyddy! How am I to live without him?'
They held each other. Thyrza sobbed out her anguish until strength failed, then lay in her sister's arms, pale as a corpse.
When there had been utter silence for a while, Lydia asked:
'And he has never said anything to you that - that he oughtn't to have said!'
'Said? What did you think? You thought he - he loved me?'
'I didn't know, dearest.'
'Oh, if he did! He asked me not to call him 'sir,' and to be his friend - never more than that. You thought he loved me? How could he love a girl like me, Lyddy?'
Lydia had followed the unfolding of the tale with growing surprise. It was impossible to doubt Thyrza's truthfulness. Yet there must be more on Egremont's part than appeared. Why did he exact secrecy about those meetings in the library? There was little doubt that Thyrza had betrayed herself to him. True, he had refrained from keeping the appointment for this morning, and it seemed he was going away till after the marriage. But all this was too late.
Still he was innocent of the guilt she had suspected. Thyrza had not come to the dreaded harm. Though heartbroken, she was saved. Lydia felt almost joyous for an instant. Bower's gossip might yet be deprived of its sting, for Mr. Egremont would be gone, and - Monday was so near.
It was the reaction from her terror. She could think of nothing for the moment but that Thyrza must be preserved from future risk by marriage.
Thyrza was lying exhausted. Lydia, deep in thought, was surprised to see a faint smile on the beautiful pale face.
'You thought he loved me?' was whispered. 'Oh, if he did! If he did!'
Lydia was still kneeling. New fears were making themselves heard. Was it possible for Thyrza to marry Gilbert under such circumstances, and within five days? What if Gilbert heard Bower's story? Nay, in any case, what of the future? Egremont would be constantly at the library.
'Thyrza, do you never think of Gilbert?'
Thyrza raised herself, again the look of wild dread in her eyes.
'Lyddy, I can't marry him! You know now that I can't, don't you? It would be wrong. I shall love him as long as ever I live - love him and think of him every minute. I can't marry Gilbert.'
There was silence. Lydia looked up with tearful, appealing eyes.
My dearest, think - think what that means? How can you break your word to him - now, when the day's almost here? Think what it'll mean to him. You'll have to tell him the reason, and then --'
'I'll tell him everything. I'll bear it. Can I help it, Lyddy? Am I happy?'
'But you haven't thought, Thyrza. It means that Gilbert will have to go on with his work at the factory.'
'Why? His mother will go and live with him at the library.'
Her voice sank. She began to understand.
'Do you suppose he can take that place from Mr. Egremont after he knows this, Thyrza?'
Thyrza was mute for a little. Then she said, under her breath:
'He needn't know the reason. He must think it's something else.'
'That's impossible. What a cruel thing it'll be to him! You know how he's looked forward. And then he loves you; he loves you more than you think. It will be dreadful! Thyrza, I don't think you'll make poor Gilbert suffer in that way. You couldn't do that, dear! You know what love means; have some pity for him!'
'I cant! He shan't know the reason; he shall go to the library just the same. We'll say it's only put off. I can't marry him on Monday! I'd sooner kill myself!'
There was a ring of terrible earnestness in the words. Lydia was afraid to plead any more at present. She affected to admit that there was no help. Yes, the marriage should be postponed; perhaps that would be a way.
The hour was late. After her sister's acquiescence Thyrza had fallen into brooding. She moved constantly. There was fire in her cheeks.
Only a few words were exchanged whilst Lydia undressed and lay down by her sister. Sleep was impossible to either of them. Yet Thyrza had not closed her eyes the night before. She was very feverish, could not lie in one position for more than a few minutes. When neither had spoken for nearly an hour, she said of a sudden:
'Lyddy, I want you to promise me that you'll never tell Gilbert nor Mrs. Grail one word of this. I want you to promise.'
'I promise you, dear. How could I think of doing so without your leave?'
There was a pause, then Thyrza resumed:
'I think you'll do as you say. Kiss me, and promise again.'
'I will keep your secret, dearest. I promise you.'
The other sighed deeply, and after that lay still.
Gilbert did not go to work next morning. Though Lydia had disguised her sister's strange condition as well as she could, he knew that something was being kept from him, and his mind, ever ready to doubt the reality of the happiness that had been granted him, was at length so beset with fears that he could no longer pay attention to the day's business. He rose at the usual time, but with a word at his mother's door made known his intention not to go out till after breakfast. Having lit a fire in the parlour, he sat down and tried to read.
He had purposed working till Saturday. To-night and to-morrow night (Thursday and Friday) Thyrza and he were to go and purchase such articles of furniture and the like as would be needed for the new house (the list was long since carefully made out, and the places of purchase decided upon), and these would be taken in by Mrs. Butterfield. On Saturday afternoon the contents of Gilbert's own room were to be removed; on that and the following night he would sleep under the new roof, and by Monday morning would have things in sufficient order to allow of Mrs. Grail and Lydia coming, for these two were to keep each other company whilst he and his wife were away. By this scheme he might work on to the end of the week, and suffer no loss of wages.
But Gilbert was not a machine, unhappily for himself. Even had nothing external occurred to trouble the order he had planned, his own mood would probably have rendered steady work impossible now that he could positively count on his fingers the days before his marriage day - before the day which would make him a free man. It was hard to believe that two such blessings could descend upon a mortal at once. It seemed to him that the very hours, as they went by, looked on him with faces of mysterious menace, foretelling a dread successor. Since Monday he had with difficulty accomplished his tasks; each time he hastened home it was with unreasoning fear lest something bad come to pass in his absence. And now it was no longer only apprehension. Thyrza was changing under his eyes. She was physically ill, and he knew that some agitation possessed her mind. She shrank from him.
The glimmer of early morning at the parlour window was cold and threatening. A faint ray of sunlight showed itself, only to fade upon a low, rain-charged sky. The sounds of labour recommencing were as wearisome to him as they always are to one who has watched through an unending night. The house itself seemed unnaturally silent.
Mrs. Grail came in at length, and looked at him anxiously. Her own eyes lacked the refreshment of sleep.
'I didn't feel able to go, mother,' he said. 'I want to hear how Thyrza is as soon as possible. Perhaps you can go up presently?'
She murmured an assent, and began to lay the table.
In a few minutes she ascended very quietly and listened at the girls' door. Her report was that she could hear no sound; they must both be sleeping.
An hour went by. Mother and son made no pretence of conversing. Gilbert kept an open book before him. Rain had begun to fall, and the sky darkened as the minutes ticked themselves away by the clock on the mantel-piece.
Then there was a sound on the stairs. Lydia came into the room, and with her Thyrza.
Lydia smiled, and tried to draw attention from her sister by lamenting their lateness at the meal.
'We were afraid you'd have gone away again,' she said to Gilbert.
'I don't think I shall go to work this morning,' he replied quietly.
She became silent. Thyrza had drawn a chair to the table. One saw that she had risen with difficulty - that she with difficulty sat upright.
Gilbert, without speaking, went and sat by her. Lydia was dreading questions, but she did injustice to the delicacy of his mind. Mrs. Grail just said: 'You're very pale still, dear,' and nothing more.
The meal was made as short as possible. Then Lydia helped Mrs. Grail to take the things to the kitchen. Thyrza, before coming down, had asked to be left alone with Gilbert for a few minutes.
Grail was at the window, watching the rain. He heard Thyrza approaching him, and turned.
'Gilbert,' she said, without raising her eyes, 'I'm behaving very unkindly to you. Will you forgive me?'
'How are you behaving unkindly, Thyrza?' he asked, with gently expressed surprise.
'I've been keeping away from you. I couldn't help it. I don't feel myself.'
'You are ill, Thyrza. Am I to forgive you for that?'
'Yes, I am ill. Gilbert, is it too late to ask you? Will you put it off for a week, one week?'
He let a minute pass before replying. Seeing that she trembled as she stood, he led her to a chair, the chair in which she always sat.
'Dear,' he said at length, 'I will do whatever you wish.'
'I shall be better by then, I think. But I'll go with you to buy the things just the same.'
'We can leave that for a few days,' he said absently.
'It wouldn't make any difference to you at the library?'
'None, I am sure, I will write and tell Mr. Egremont. He will be very sorry to hear of your illness.'
She stood up, and looked at the clock.
'I've made you late for your work.'
'I shan't go to-day.'
'You won't go?' she asked.
'I can't, Thyrza. I'm too uneasy about you.'
'Don't be that, Gilbert, I promise you to try and get better.'
Another silence, then he asked
'Will you stay here this morning?'
She just raised her face; fear and entreaty were on the features.
'I only came down for breakfast, to ask you that, and - and to tell you I was so sorry.'
'To be sure,' he replied at once. 'You are not well enough to be up. Lyddy will stay with you?'
'Yes, she is going to stay. I'll come and see you again, if I feel able.'
She offered her hand. He took it, held it a little, then said:
'Thyrza, is there anything on your mind, anything you don't wish to tell me just now, but in a day or two perhaps?'
'No, Gilbert, no! If you'll forgive me for behaving unkindly.'
'Dear, how can there be any forgiving, so long as I love you? There must be blame before there is need of forgiveness, and I love you too well to think a reproachful thought.'
She bent her head and sobbed.
'Thyrza, is it any happiness to you to know that I love you?'
'Yes, it is. You are very good. I know I am making you suffer.'
'But I shall see the old face again, before long?'
'Soon. I shall be myself again soon.'
She left him and went upstairs. A minute or two after. Lydia knocked at the door.
'Thyrza has gone up?' she asked.
'Yes. Come here, Lydia!'
He spoke with abruptness. Lydia drew near.
'You know that she has asked me to put off our marriage for a week?'
'I didn't know that she was going to ask you now, I thought perhaps she wished it.'
'I can't ask you to betray your sister's secrets, but - Lyddy, you won't keep anything from me that I ought to know?'
He paused, then went on again with a shaking voice.
'There are some things that I ought to know, if - You know that, Lyddy? You owe love to your sister first, but you owe something to me as well. There are some things you would have no right to keep from me. You might be doing both her and me the greatest wrong.'
Lydia could not face him. She tried to speak, but uttered only a meaningless word.
'Thyrza is ill,' he pursued. 'I can't ask her, as I feel I ought to, what has made her ill. Tell me this, as you are a good and a truthful girl. If I marry Thyrza, shall I be taking advantage of her weakness? Does she wish me to free her?'
'She doesn't! Indeed, Gilbert, she doesn't! You are her very best friend. All her life depends upon you. You won't break it off? Perhaps she will even be well enough by the end of the week, Remember how young she is, and how often she has strange fancies.'
'You tell me solemnly that Thyrza still wishes to be my wife?'
'She does. She wishes to be your wife, Gilbert.'
To Lydia her sister's fate hung in the balance. What she uttered was verbally true. Before rising, Thyrza had said: 'I will marry him.' In the possible breaking of this bond Lydia saw such a terrible danger that her instincts of absolute sincerity for once were overridden. If she spoke falsely, it was to save her sister. Thyrza once married, the face of life would be altered for her; this sudden passionate love would fall like a brief flame. Lydia had decided upon a bold step. As soon as it was possible, she would go and see Mr. Egremont, see him herself, and, if he had any heart or any honour, prevail with him that Thyrza might be spared temptation. But the marriage must first be over, and must be brought about at all costs.
In her life she had never spoken an untruth for her own advantage. Now, as she spoke, the sense that her course was chosen gave her courage. She looked Gilbert at length boldly in the face. His confidence in her was so great that, his own desires aiding, he believed her to the full. Thyrza's suffering, he said to himself, had not the grave meaning he had feared; it was something that must be sacred from his search.
So much power was there in Lydia's word, uttered for her sister's saving.
All day long it rained. Gilbert did not go from the house. He wrestled with hope, which was still only to be held by persistent effort. Sunshine would have aided him, but all day he looked upon a gloomy, wet street. At dinner-time he had all but made up his mind to go to work; the thought, however, was too hateful to him. And he felt it would be hard to meet men's faces. Perhaps there would be comfort by the morrow.
Thyrza did in fact come down for tea. She spoke only a few words, but she seemed stronger than in the morning. Lydia had a brighter face too. They went up again together after the meal.
Another night passed. Lydia slept. She believed that the worst was over, and that there might after all be no postponement of the marriage. For Thyrza had become very quiet; she seemed worn out with struggle, and resigned. Her sleep, she said, had been good. Yet her eyelids were swollen; no doubt she had cried in the night.
Lydia had no intention of leaving home. Gilbert had gone to work, reassured by her report the last thing on the previous evening.
There was no more speech between the sisters on the subject of their thoughts. Through the morning Thyrza lay so still that Lydia, thinking her asleep, now and then stepped lightly and bent over her. Each time, however, she found the sad eyes gazing fixedly upwards. Thyrza just turned them to her, but without change of expression.
'Don't look at me like that, dear,' Lydia said once. 'It's as if you didn't know me.'
The reply was a brief smile.
Thyrza got up in the afternoon. About five o'clock, when Lydia was making tea, Mrs. Jarmey came with a message. She said Mr. Boddy had sent word that he wished to see Lydia particularly; he begged she would come during the evening.
'Who brought the message?' Lydia asked, going outside the door to speak with the landlady.
'A little boy,' was the answer. 'I never see him before, as I know.'
Lydia was disturbed. It might only mean that the old man was anxious at not having seen her for five or six days, or that he was ill; but the fact of his living in the Bowers' house suggested another explanation. An answer was required; she sent back word that she would come.
'I shan't be more than half an hour away at the very longest,' she said, when she reluctantly prepared to go out after tea. 'Wouldn't you like to go downstairs just for that time, dear?'
'No, Lyddy, I'll stay.'
Thyrza had left her chair, and stood with her hand resting on the mantel-piece. She did not turn her head.
'How funny you look with your hair like that!'
Thyrza had declined to have her hair braided, and had coiled it herself in a new way. She made no reply.
'Good-bye, pet!' Lydia said, coming near.
Thyrza did not move. She was looking downwards at the fire. Lydia touched her; she started, and, with a steady gaze, said, 'Good-bye, Lyddy!'
'I do wish I hadn't to go. But I shall be very quick.'
They kissed each other, and Lydia hastened on her errand.
Her absence did not last much longer than the time she had set. Mr. Boddy had heard from Mrs. Bower all the story about Egremont. He gave no faith to it, but wished to warn Lydia that such gossip was afloat, and to receive from her an authoritative denial. She declared it to be false from beginning to end. Without a moment's hesitation she did this, having determined that there was no middle course. She denied that Thyrza had been to the library. Whoever originated the story had done so in malice. She enjoined upon him to contradict it without reserve.
She felt as if she were being hunted by merciless beasts. To escape them, any means were justifiable. Of the Bowers she thought with bitter hatred. No wrong to herself could have excited all her fiercest emotions as did this attack upon her sister. Running homewards, she felt the will and the strength to take the life of her enemy. She had entered the Bowers' house, and left it, by the private door; it was well that she had met no one.
She remembered that Thyrza must not discover her excitement, and went up the stairs slowly, regaining breath, trying to smooth her face. A fable to account for Mr. Boddy's summons was ready on her tongue. She entered, and found an empty room.
So Thyrza had gone down to Mrs. Grail after all. That was good. The poor girl was making a brave struggle, and would conquer herself yet. If only Bower's gossip could be kept from Gilbert, But there was still a long time till Monday, still two whole days, and Bower, determined as he evidently was to work mischief, would not neglect the supreme opportunity. It would have been better if Gilbert had not returned to work.
She took off her things.
What was that lying on the table? An envelope, a dirty one which had been in the drawer for a long time; on it was written 'Lyddy.' It was Thyrza's writing. Lydia opened it. Inside was a rough piece of white paper, torn off a sheet in which something had been wrapped. It was written upon, and the writing said this:
'I have gone away. I can't marry Gilbert, and I can't tell him the truth. Remember your promise. Some day I shall come back to you, when everything is different. Remember your promise, so that Gilbert can go to the library just the same. No harm will come to me. Good-bye, my dear, dear sister. If you love me you will say you know nothing, so that it will be all right for Gilbert. Good-bye, Lyddy, darling.'
Crushing the paper in her hand, Lydia, just as she was, ran out into the street. It was not yet dark. Instinctively, after one glance towards Kennington Road, she took the opposite way and made for Newport Street. Thyrza would communicate with Totty Nancarrow, if with any one at all; she would not go there at once, but Totty must be won over to aid in discovering the child and bringing her back.
It rained, not heavily, but enough to dew Lydia's hair in a few minutes. Little she thought of that. Thyrza wandering alone - straying off into some far part of London; Thyrza, ill as she was - with at most a few pence to procure lodging for this one night - alone among what dangers! The thought was fire in her brain.
She was in Paradise Street, and someone stood in her way, speaking.
'Lydia! Where ever are you going like that?'
It was Mary Bower. Lydia glared at her.
'How dare you speak to me! I hate you!'
And with a wild gesture, almost a blow at the girl, she rushed on.
Totty had just come in from work. Lydia scarcely waited for a reply to her knock before she burst into the room.
'Totty! Will you help me? Thyrza has left me - gone away. I was out for half an hour. She left a note for me, to say good-bye. Help me to find her! Do you know anything? Can you think where she'd go?'
Totty was on her knees, lighting a fire. In her amazement she made no effort to rise. A lighted piece of paper was in her hand; forgetting it, she let the flame creep on till it burnt her fingers. Then she stood up.
'What does she say in the note?' she asked with deliberation.
Lydia opened her hand and spread out the crumpled paper. She was going to read aloud, but checked herself and looked at the other piteously.
'You know all about it, don't you? Thyrza told you?'
'I suppose I know pretty well,' Totty replied, in the same deliberate and distant way.
'Has she said anything to you about going away?'
'I don't know as she has.'
'Then look what she's written.'
Totty hesitated, then said:
'Thank you, I'd rather not. It's not my business. If I was you, I'd speak to Mr. Ackroyd. I know nothing about Thyrza.'
'To Mr. Ackroyd?' exclaimed Lydia. 'But I'm sure she won't see him. It's you'll hear from her, if anybody does. Can't you think of any place she'd be likely to go? Hasn't she never said anything in talking? You wouldn't keep it back, just because you don't like me? It's my sister - she's all I have; you know she can't look out for herself like you and me could. And she's been ill since Monday. Won't you help me if you can, just because I'm in trouble?'
'I'd help you if I could,' replied the other, not unmoved by the appeal, but still distant. 'I'm quite sure Thyrza won't let me know where she is. If you take my advice you'll see Mr. Ackroyd.'
In her agitation Lydia could not reflect upon the complicated details of the case. She never doubted that Totty knew the truth; in this, we know, Luke had unintentionally deceived her. Perhaps the advice to consult Ackroyd was good; perhaps he had learned something more since Wednesday night, something that Totty also knew but did not care to communicate herself.
'I'll try and find him,' Lydia said. 'But if you do hear any thing you wouldn't keep it from me?'
'You'll hear just as soon as I do,' was the reply.
Lydia turned away, feeling that the girl's coldness was a cruelty, wondering at it. She herself could not have behaved so to one in dire need.
She was going away, but Totty stopped her.
'You can't go back like that, in the rain. Take my umbrella.'
'What do I care for the rain!' Lydia cried. 'I must find Thyrza. I thought you pretended to be her friend.'
She hastened into the street. Not many yards from the door she met the man she desired to see. Ackroyd was coming to ask for Totty, for the first time since Tuesday night. Lydia drew him to the opposite side of the way, and hurriedly told him, showing him the scrap of paper.
'I've been to Totty,' she added. 'She didn't seem to wish to help me; she spoke as if she didn't care, and said I'd better ask you. Do you know anything more?'
He was mute at first. His mind naturally turned to one thought. Then he said, speaking slowly:
'I know nothing more, except that lots of people have heard Bower's story. Does Grail know?'
'Not unless he has heard since this morning.'
'I haven't seen much of him to-day, but I noticed he looked very queer.'
'That's because Thyrza asked him to put off the wedding for a week. I never thought she'd leave me. We talked about everything that night after I left you. I pretended I'd found it out myself; I durstn't let her know that other people had noticed anything. She had a dreadful night, but she seemed better since.'
'And did she tell you - everything?'
'Everything! She said he'd never spoken a word to her that he shouldn't. I'm sure it was the truth; Thyrza wouldn't have deceived me like that. He's gone away, somewhere out of London.'
Luke stopped her. He looked closely at her through the dusk, and said in a low voice:
'He's gone away? Did she tell you he was going away?'
'Yes. He said good-bye to her, and hoped she would be happy.'
'But, Lydia - if he's gone away - and now she's gone --'
Lydia understood him.
'Oh! Don't think that!' she said, her eyes full of fear. 'No, no! I'm sure that isn't true! He'd never said a word to her. He hadn't given her to think he cared for her. She cried because he didn't.'
'But if she's so mad with love of him,' Luke said, dropping his eyes, 'who knows what she might do? You'd never have thought she could leave you like this.'
The rain was falling more heavily. As Lydia stood, unable to utter any argument against him, Ackroyd saw that her hair was quite wet.
'You mustn't stand out here,' he said. 'Come round into Paradise Street with me, and I'll get you something of my sister's to go home in. Poor girl! You came out like this as soon as you'd found she was gone? Come quick, or you'll get your death.'
She accompanied him without speaking. Her mind was working on the suggestion he had uttered. Against her will he compelled her to step into the house whilst he procured a hat and a garment for her. He took care that no one saw her, and when she was clad, he went out with her, carrying an umbrella for her protection.
'Don't come with me,' she said.
'Yes, you must let me. I was going to try and see you tonight, Lydia, to ask what --'
'And I wanted to see you. I felt I must tell you how well everything seemed to be going. Oh, and now - How shall I tell Gilbert? How shall I tell him? What ought I to do, Mr. Ackroyd? Thyrza made me promise faithful I wouldn't tell her secret. She says that, in the note. I'm sure she hasn't gone - gone to him. She couldn't marry Gilbert, and yet she doesn't want him to lose the library. That's why she's gone; I know it is. She believes I shall keep my promise. But what must I do? How can I pretend I don't know anything?'
'I don't think you can.'
'I didn't care for anything as long as it helped her. Mr. Boddy sent for me just now - that was why I had to go out. Mrs. Bower had been telling him. I said it was all a lie from beginning to end. Didn't I do right, Mr. Ackroyd? I'd say and do anything for Thyrza. But how can I keep it from Gilbert flow?'
'You can't, Lydia. He's bound to hear from somebody. And if you feel so sure that she hasn't gone --'
'She hasn't She hasn't! You promised me you wouldn't think harm of her.'
'Indeed I won't. But Grail's bound to know. I can't see that you'll make it a bit better by denying.'
'But my promise to Thyrza! The last thing she ever asked of me. And Gilbert 'll refuse the place; I know he will!'
'Yes, he will. There's no man could take it after this. I m right down sorry for poor Grail.'
They were in Walnut Tree Walk by this time.
'Don't come any farther,' Lydia said. 'Thank you for being so kind to me. Here, take these things of your sister's; you can just carry them back - or I'll leave them, if you like.'
'No, you shan't have that trouble. If Gilbert's home you ought to tell him now. He'll go to the police station, and ask them to help to find her. Let me know at once If you hear anything. She may come back.'
'No, she won't.'
'Run into the house at once.'
The parlour door opened as she entered the passage. Gilbert came out.
'Where has Thyrza gone to?' he asked, after examining her for an instant.
She could not speak, and could not stir from the place. Her hope had been to have time before she saw him.
'Lydia. where has Thyrza gone?'
She stepped into the room. The piece of paper was still crushed within her hand; she held it closer still.
'She's gone away, Gilbert. I don't know where. I had to go out, and when I came back she was gone. Perhaps she'll come back.'
Mrs. Grail was in the background. She was supporting herself by a chair; her face gave proof of some agitation just experienced. Gilbert was very pale, but when Lydia ended he seemed to master himself and spoke with an unnatural calm.
'Have you heard anything,' he asked, 'of a calumny the Bowers have been spreading, about your sister and Mr. Egremont?'
'Yes. I have heard it.'
'When did it first come to your knowledge?'
'On Wednesday night. Mr. Ackroyd told me.'
'And did Thyrza hear of it?'
'No, Gilbert. I think not.'
He moved in surprise.
'You say she has gone? What makes you think she has left us?'
To hide anything now was worse than useless. Without speaking, she held to him the scrap of paper. He, having read, turned to his mother.
'Will you let us be alone, mother?'
The poor old woman went with bowed head from the room. Gilbert's voice dropped to a lower note.
'Lydia, as you have shown me this, you must have decided that you cannot keep the promise which is spoken of here.'
'I can't keep it, Gilbert, because you might think worse of Thyrza if I do.'
'Think worse? Then you suppose I believe what is said about her - about Thyrza?'
'I can't think you believe what Mr. Bower wishes people to, but you can't know how little she's been to blame.'
He was silent, then said:
'I came home a few minutes ago, thinking that what Bunce has just told was a mere lie, set afloat by someone who wished us harm. I thought Thyrza knew of the lie, and that it had made her ill - that she could not bring herself to speak to me of it. But I see there's something more.'
She stood before him like one guilty. His calmness was terrible to her. She seemed to feel in herself all the anguish which he was repressing. He continued:
'You told me yesterday morning that Thyrza still wished to marry me. This note shows me why you said that, and in what sense you meant it. I don't blame you, Lydia; you were loyal to your sister. But I must ask you something else now, and your answer must be the simple truth. Does Thyrza love Mr. Egremont?'
She said it with failing voice, and, as soon as she had spoken, burst into tears.
'Oh, I have broken the promise I made to my dear one! The last thing she asked, and perhaps I shall never see her again! What could I do, Gilbert? If I kept it back, you'd have thought there was something worse. She seems to have behaved cruel to you, but you don't know what she's gone through. She's so ill; she'll go somewhere and die, and I shall never hear her speak to me again! I've been unkind to her so often; she doesn't know how I love her! Gilbert, help me to find her! I can't live without my sister. Don't be angry with her, Gilbert; she's suffered dreadful; if you only knew! She tried so hard. Her last thought was about you, and how she could spare you. Forgive her, and bring her back to me. What shall we do to find her? Oh, I can't lose her, my little sister, my dear one!'
One would have thought Gilbert had no grief of his own, so anxiously did he try to comfort her.
'Lyddy,' he said, when she could listen to him, 'you are my sister, and will always be. If I could think unkindly of Thyrza now, I should show that I was never worthy of her. Don't hurt me by saying such things. We will find her; have no fear, we will find her.'
'And you'll do as she wished? You'll still go to the library?'
'I can't think of myself yet, Lyddy. You must have her back again, and there'll be time enough to think of trifles.'
'But let me tell you all I know, Gilbert. He doesn't love her; you mustn't think that. There's never been a word between them. She went to help him with the books, and so it came on her.'
'It's true, then,' he said gravely, 'that they met there?'
'He didn't encourage her. She told me again and again he didn't. She went on Wednesday morning, and he never came. That was on purpose, I'm sure.'
'But why wasn't I told about the books?'
'He wanted to surprise you. And now he's gone away, Gilbert. He told her he wouldn't be back till after her marriage.'
'He's gone away?'
She raised her face, and continued eagerly:
'You see why he went, don't you? I had hard thoughts of him at first, but now I know I was wrong. You think so much of him; you know he wouldn't be so cowardly and wicked. Thyrza told me the solemn truth; I would die rather than doubt her word. You must believe her, Gilbert. It's all so hard! She couldn't help it. And you mustn't think harm of him!'
He said under his breath:
'I must try not to.'
She sat down, overcome, yielding herself to voiceless misery. It was a long time before Gilbert spoke.
'Do you know where he is gone to, Lyddy?'
'No, I don't.'
Again silence. Then he moved, and looked at the clock.
'Will you sit with my mother? This is a great blow to her as well, and it is hard to bear at her age. I will go out and see what I can do. Don't fear, we'll find her. You shall soon have her back. Do you feel able to sit with mother?
'Yes, I will, Gilbert.'
'Thank you. It will be kindness. I don't think I shall be very late.'
In passing her, he just touched her hand.
In the meanwhile, Ackroyd had returned to Newport Street. He sent up word by the landlady that he wished to see Totty. The latter sent a reply to him that perhaps she would be coming out in about an hour, but could not be certain.
He waited, standing in the rain, over against the house. Perhaps twenty minutes passed; then he saw the girl come forth.
'We can't talk here,' Luke said, joining her. 'Will you come under the archway yonder?'
'I don't see that we've got so much to talk about,' Totty answered, indifferently.
'Yes, I've several things to ask you.'
'All right. But I can't wait out in the cold for long.'
They went in the direction away from Paradise Street, and found shelter under a black vault of the railway. A train roared above their heads as they entered.
'I've just seen Lydia Trent,' he began. 'Did you expect that anything of this kind would happen?'
'I've told you already that I have nothing to do with Thyrza and her goings on. I told Lydia she'd better go to you if she wanted to find her sister. I hope you told her all you know.'
'What do you mean by that? How should I be able to help her to find Thyrza?'
'Oh, don't bother me!' Totty exclaimed, with impatience. 'I'm sick of it. If you've brought me out to talk in this way, you might as well have let it alone.'
'What are you driving at, Totty? I tell you I don't understand you. Speak plainly, if you please. You think that I know where Thyrza is?'
'I suppose you're as likely to as anybody.'
'Why? Confound it, why?'
She shrugged her shoulders, and turned away. He pressed his question with growing impatience.
'Why, what did you come telling me the other night?' cried Totty at length. 'It was like your impudence.'
'What did I tell you? I didn't tell you anything. I asked if you knew of something, and you said you did. I don't see how I was impudent. After hearing Bower's tale it was likely I should come and speak to you about it.'
'Bower's tale? What tale?'
'You don't know that Bower's found it all out, and is telling everybody?'
'Found all what out? I haven't been to the shop for a week. What do you mean?'
Ackroyd checked some impulsive words, and recommenced gravely:
'Look here, Totty. Will you please tell me in plain words what you supposed I was asking you about on Tuesday night?'
'All right. It's nothing to me. You'd found out somehow that Thyrza was foolish enough to want to have you instead of Mr. Grail, and so you was so kind as to come and tell me. I quite understood; there's no need of saying 'I beg your pardon.' You may go your way, and I go mine.'
'And you mean to say you believed that! Well, I don't wonder at you being in the sulks. And that's why you send Lydia to me to ask about Thyrza? By the Lord, if I ever heard the like of that! Well, I've got a fair lot of cheek, but I couldn't quite manage that.'
'Then what did you mean?' she cried angrily.
'Why, nothing at all. But what did you mean by saying you knew all about it?'
'About as much as you did,' she answered coldly.
'H'm. Then we both meant nothing. I'll say good. night, Totty.'
'No you won't. You'll please to tell me what you did mean!'
He was about to answer lightly, but altered his intention and said:
'I can't do that. It's not my business.'
'As you please. I shall go and ask Mrs. Bower what's going on.'
'I can't prevent you. But listen here, Totty. If you repeat what they tell you - if you repeat it once - you're not the girl I thought you. It's more than half a cursed lie, and you can't tell one half the story without meaning the other.'
'I shall know what to think when I've heard it, Mr. Ackroyd. And as to repeating, I shall do as I think fit.'
'Look here! When you've heard that story, you'll just go and say to everybody that ever mentions it to you that it's a lie from beginning to end. You understand me?'
'I shall do as I please.'
'No, you'll do as I please!'
'Indeed! And who made you my master, Mr. Ackroyd?'
'I've nothing more to say, but you've heard me. And you'll do it, because your own heart 'll tell you it's the right thing to do. I don't often use words like that, but I mean it to-night. Good-bye!'
She allowed him to walk away.
When Paula had been three or four days wedded, it occurred to her to examine her husband's countenance. They were at breakfast at Biarritz, and certain words that fell from Mr. Dalmaine, as he sat sideways from the table with his newspaper, led her eyes to rest for a few moments on his face. He was smiling, but with depressed brows. Paula noted the smile well, and it occupied her thoughts now and then during the day. She was rather in want of something to think of just then, feeling a little lonely, and wishing her mother, or her brother, or somebody whom she really knew, were at hand to talk to.
It was with that same peculiar smile - the bushy eyebrows closing together, the lips very tight - that her husband approached her late one evening in the first week of May. They were in their house in Kensington now; there had been a dinner party, the last guest was gone, and Paula sat in the drawing-room, thinking how she had impressed a certain polite old member of Parliament, a man whom it was worth while impressing. Mr. Dalmaine took a seat near her, and leaned forward with his hands clasped between his knees.
He asked: 'What were you saying to Puggerton when I passed and looked at you - you remember? Something about working men and intelligent voting.'
'Oh, I was telling that tale of yours about the candidate whose name was Beere, and who got in so easily for --'
'I thought so,' he remarked, before she had finished. 'And you went on to say that I thought it a pity that there were not more men on our side with names of similar sound?'
'Yes, I did. Mr. Puggerton laughed ever so much.'
'H'm. Paula, my dear, I think it won't be amiss if you leave off talking about politics.'
'Why? I'm sure I've been talking very cleverly all the evening. Mr. Liggs said I was an acquisition to - something, I forget what.'
'No doubt. For all that, I think you had better give your attention to other things. In fact - it's not a polite thing to say - but you're making a fool of yourself.'
Paula's features hardened. She looked very beautiful tonight, and had, in truth, been charming. Her appearance suffered when the delicate curves of her face fell into hard lines. It was noteworthy that the smile her husband now wore always caused this change in her expression.
'I'm glad you know that it isn't polite,' she answered, sourly. 'You often need to be told.'
'I hope not. But you try my patience a little now and then. Surely it's better that I should save you from making these ridiculous mistakes. Once or twice this week I've heard most absurd remarks of yours repeated. Please remember that it isn't only yourself you - stultify. Politics may be a joke for you; for me it is a serious pursuit. I mustn't have people associating my name with all kinds of nonsensical chatter. I have a career before me, Paula.'
He said it with dignity, resting a hand on each knee, and letting his smile fade into a look of ministerial importance.
'Why are you ashamed of having your stories repeated?'
'Well, I told you that when - when I didn't think of the need of measuring my words with you. I've been more cautious lately. If you had any understanding for such things at all, I could explain that a trifle like that might be made to tell heavily against me by some political enemy. Once more - if you are drawn into talk of that kind, you must always speak of working people with the utmost respect - with reverence. No matter how intimate a friend you may be speaking with - even with your mother or your father --'
'You think papa would believe me if I told him I reverenced working men, the free and independent electors?'
'There again: That's a phrase you must not use; I say it absolutely; you must forget the phrase. Yes, your father must believe you.'
'Do you think he believes you?'
Mr. Dalmaine drew himself up.
'I don't know what you mean, Paula.'
'And I don't know what you mean. You are ridiculous.'
'Excuse me. That is the word that applies to you. However, I have no wish to wrangle. Let it be understood that you gradually abandon conversation such as this of to-night. For the sake of appearances you must make no sudden and obvious change. If you take my advice, you'll cultivate talk of a light, fashionable kind. Literature you mustn't interfere with; I shouldn't advise you to say much about art, except that of course you may admire the pictures at the Grosvenor Gallery. You'd better read the Society journals carefully. In fact, keep to the sphere which is distinctly womanly.'
'And what about your anxiety to see women take part in politics?'
'There are exceptions to every rule. And the programme of the platform, be good enough to try and understand, doesn't always apply to domestic circumstances. If one happens to have married a very pretty and delightful girl --'
'Oh, of course!'
'I repeat, a very pretty and charming girl, with no turn whatever for seriousness, one can't pretend to offer an instance in one's own house of the political woman. Once more understand - in England politics must be pursued with gravity. We don't fly about and chatter and scream like Frenchmen. No man will succeed with us in politics who has not a reputation for solid earnestness. Therefore, the more stupid a man, the better chance he has. I am naturally fond of a joke, but to get a name for that kind of thing would ruin me. You are clever, Paula, very clever in your way, but you don't, and you never will, understand politics. I beg of you not to damage my prospects. Cultivate a safe habit of speech. You may talk of the events of the season, of pigeon shooting, of horse racing, of the Prince and Princess of Wales, and so on; it's what everybody expects in a fashionable lady. Of course if you had been able to take up politics in earnest - but, never mind. I like you very well as you are. How well you look in that dress!'
'I rather think you're right,' Paula remarked, after a short pause, turning about a bracelet on her wrist. 'It'll be better if you go your way and I go mine.'
'Precisely; though that's an unkind way of putting it.'
He sat looking at the ground, and a smile of another kind came to his face.
'By-the-by, I've something to tell you - something that'll amuse you very much, and that you may talk about, just as much as you like.'
She made no reply.
'Your friend Egremont has come out in a new part - his first appearance in it, absolutely, though he can't be said to have created the rôle. He's run away with a girl from Lambeth - in fact, the girl who was just going to be married to his right-hand man, his librarian.'
Paula looked up in astonishment: then, with indignant incredulity, she said:
'What do you mean? What's your object in talking nonsense of that kind?'
'Again and again I have to tell you that I never talk nonsense; I am a politician. I heard the news this morning from Tasker. The man Grail - Egremont's librarian - was to have been married two days ago, Monday. Last Friday night his bride-elect disappeared. She's a very pretty girl, Tasker tells me - wonderfully pretty for one in her position, a work-girl. Egremont seems to have thought it a pity to let her be wasted. He's been meeting her secretly for some time - in the library, of all places, whilst the man Grail was at work, poor fellow! And at last he carried her off. There's no getting on his track, I'm told. The question is: What will become of the embryo library? The whole thing's about the finest joke I've heard for some time.'
Paula had reddened. Her eyes flashed anger.
'I don't know whether you've invented it,' she said, 'or whether your secretary has, but I know there isn't one word of truth in it.'
'My dear child, it's no invention at all. The affair is the common talk of Lambeth.'
'Then do you mean to say Mr. Egremont has married this girl?'
'Well, I don't know that we'll discuss that point,' Dalmaine replied, twiddling his thumbs. 'There's no information to hand.'
'I don't believe it! I tell you I don't believe it! Mr. Egremont is engaged to my cousin Annabel; and besides, he couldn't do such a thing. He isn't a man of that kind.'
'Your experience of men is not great, my dear Paula.'
'I don't care! I know Mr. Egremont. Even if you said he'd married her, it isn't true. You mustn't judge every man by --'
'You were going to say?'
She rose and swept her train over a few yards of floor. Then she came back and stood before him.
'You tell me that people are saying this?'
'A considerable number of my respected constituents - and their wives - are saying it. Tasker shall give you judicial evidence, if you please.'
'I'm sure I'm not going to talk to Mr. Tasker. I dislike him too much to believe a word he says.'
'Of course. But he is absolutely trustworthy. I called at Egremont's this afternoon to make sure that he was away from home. Now there is something for you to talk about, Paula.'
'I shall take very good care that I don't speak a word of it to anyone. It's contemptible to make up such a story about a man just because you dislike him.'
'It seemed to me that you were not remarkably fond of him two months or so ago.'
'Did it?' she said, sarcastically. 'If I know little of men, it's certain you don't know much more of women.'
He leaned back and laughed. And whilst he laughed Paula quitted the room.
Paula still kept up her habit of letter-writing. After breakfast next morning she sat in her pretty boudoir, writing to Annabel. After sentences referring to Annabel's expected arrival in London for the season, she added this:
'A very shocking story has just come to my ears. I oughtn't really to repeat it to you, dear, and yet in another way it is my duty to. Mr. Egremont has disappeared, and with him the girl who was just going to marry his librarian - the poor man you know of from him. There are no means of knowing whether they have run away together to be married - or not. Everybody knows about it; it is the talk of Lambeth. My husband heard of it at once. The girl is said to be very good-looking. I wish I could refuse to believe it, but there is no doubt whatever. You ought to know at once; but perhaps you will have heard already. I never knew anything more dreadful, and I can't say what I feel.'
There was not much more in the letter. Having fastened up the envelope, Paula let it lie on her desk, whilst she walked about the room. Each time she passed the desk she looked at the letter, and lingered a little. Once she took it up and seemed about to open it again. Her expression all this time was very strange; her colour came and went; she bit her lips, and twisted her fingers together. At length she rang the bell, and when the servant came, gave the letter to be posted immediately.
Five minutes later she was in her bedroom, sitting in a low chair, crying like a very unhappy child.
The letter reached Eastbourne two days before that appointed for the departure of Annabel and her father for London. They had accepted Mrs. Tyrrell's invitation to her house; Mr. Newthorpe might remain only a fortnight, or might stay through the season - but Annabel would not come back to Eastbourne before August. She said little, but her father saw with what pleasure she anticipated this change. He wondered whether it would do her good or harm. Her books lay almost unused; of late she had attended chiefly to music, in such hours as were not spent out of doors. Mr. Newthorpe's health was as far improved as he could hope it ever would be. He too looked forward to associating once more with the few friends he had in London.
It was in the evening that Annabel, entering after a long drive with her father, found Paula's letter. She took it from the hall in passing to her room.
At dinner she spoke very little. After the meal she said that she wished to walk over to The Chestnuts. She left her father deep in a French novel - he read much more of the lighter literature now than formerly.
Mrs. Ormonde was upstairs with her children; they were singing to her; Annabel heard the choir of young voices as she entered the garden. The servant who went to announce her brought back a request that she would ascend and hear a song.
She did so. The last song was to be 'Annie Laurie,' in which the children were perfect. Annabel took the offered seat without speaking, and listened.
Bessie Bunce was near Mrs. Ormonde. When the song was over she said:
'I'd like to hear Miss Trent sing that again; wouldn't you, mum?'
'Yes, I should, Bessie. Perhaps we shall have her here again some day.'
Mrs. Ormonde went down with Annabel to the drawing-room. She was in a happy mood to-night, and, as they descended together, she put her arm playfully about the girl's waist.
'I wonder where Mr. Grail has taken her?' she said. 'I can't get any news from Mr. Egremont. I wrote to Jersey, and behold the letter is returned to me, with 'Gone and left no address.' I wonder whether he's back in town!'
'I have some news of him,' Annabel said quietly.
There was no reply till they were in the drawing-room; then Annabel held out her cousin's letter.
'Will you read that?'
Mrs. Ormonde complied, Annabel watching her face the while. The girl looked for indignation, for scornful disbelief; she saw something quite different. Mrs. Ormonde's hand trembled, but in a moment she had overcome all weakness.
'Sit down, dear,' she said, calmly. 'You have just received this? Yes, I see the date.'
Annabel remained standing.
'Your letter is returned from Jersey,' she remarked, with steady voice. 'Paula mentions no dates. Did he go to Jersey at all?'
'I have no means of knowing, save his own declaration, when he said good-bye to me on Thursday of last week. And be told me he was going to his old quarters at St. Aubin's.'
'Do you give credit to this, Mrs. Ormonde?'
'Annabel, I can say nothing. Yet, no! I do not believe it until it is confirmed beyond all doubt. I owe that to him, as you also do.'
'But it does not seem to you incredible. I saw that on your face.'
'One thing suggested here is incredible, wholly incredible. If there is any truth in the story at all, by this time she is his wife. So much we know, you and I, Annabel.'
'Remember, it is possible that he is in Jersey. The old rooms may have been occupied.'
'The people would know where he had gone, I think, Though if he - if he was not alone, probably he would go to a new place at once. He may have told you the truth in saying he was going to Jersey.'
'Then it was needless to add the untruth. I did not ask him where he would live. Sit down, dear.'
'Thank you. I shall not stay now. I thought it was better to come to you with this at once. Please destroy the letter.'
Mrs. Ormonde mused.
'Can you still go to your aunt's?' she asked, when Annabel moved for leave-taking.
'You are taking the truth for granted, Mrs. Ormonde.'
'I mean that we have no way of discovering whether it is true or not.'
'It will make no change. I shall not speak of it to father. There will be no change, in any case.'
Again there fell a short silence.
'I can only wait in hope of hearing from him,' Mrs. Ormonde said.
'Of course. If my aunt says anything to me about it, I will write to you. Good-bye.'
'I shall see you to-morrow, as we arranged?'
'Oh yes. But, please, we won't refer again to this.'
They parted as on an ordinary occasion.
But Annabel did not go home at once. She walked down to the shore, and stood for a long time looking upon the dim sea. It was the very spot where Thyrza had stood that Sunday morning when she came out in the early sunlight.
Annabel had often thought how fitting it was that at this period of her life she should leave the calm, voiceless shore of Ullswater for the neighbourhood of the never-resting waves. The sea had a voice of craving, and her heart responded with desire for completion of her being, with desire for love.
The thought that she would be near Walter Egremont had a great part in her anticipation of London.
She was not hitherto sure that she loved him. It was rather, 'Let me see him again, and discover how his presence affects me.' Yet his manifest coldness at the last meeting had caused her much vague heartache. She blamed herself for being so cold: was it not natural that he should take his tone from her? He would naturally watch to see how she bore herself to him, and, remembering Ullswater, he could not press for more than she seemed ready to give. Yet her reserve had been involuntary; assuredly she was not then moved with a longing to recover what she had rejected.
There was a change after the meeting with Thyrza Trent. It seemed to her very foolish to remember so persistently that Egremont had said nothing of the girl's strange loveliness, yet she could not help thinking of the omission as something significant. She even recollected that, in speaking to her of Thyrza, he had turned his eyes seaward. Such trifles could mean nothing as regarded Egremont, but how in reference to herself? How if she knew that he had given his love to another woman? I think that would be hard to bear.
And it was hard to bear.
Passion had won it over everything. He had taken Thyrza at the eleventh hour, and now she was married to him. She did not doubt it; she felt that Mrs. Ormonde did not doubt it. It had meant something - that failure to speak of the girl's beauty, that evasion with the eyes.
The night was cold, but she sat down by the shore, and let her head droop as she listened to the sea-dirge. She could love him, now that it was in vain. She knew now the warm yearning for his presence which at Ullswater had never troubled her, and it was too late. No tears came to her eyes; she did not even breathe a deeper breath. Most likely it would pass without a single outbreak of grief.
And perhaps the thought of another's misery somewhat dulled the edge of her own. Gilbert Grail was only a name to her, but he lived very vividly in her imagination. Of course she had idealised him, as was natural in a woman thinking of a man who has been represented to her as full of native nobleness. For him, as for herself, her heart was heavy. She knew that he must return to his hated day-labour, and how would it now be embittered! What anguish of resentment! What despair of frustrate passion!
She wished she could know him, and take his hand, and soothe him with a woman's tenderness. His lot was harder than hers; nay, it was mockery to compare them.
Annabel rose, murmuring old words:
''Therefore I praised the dead which are already dead more than the living which are yet alive. Yea, better is he than both they, which hath not yet been, who hath not seen the evil work which is done under the sun.''
Egremont alighted one evening at Charing Cross. He came direct from Paris, and was alone. His absence from England had extended over a fortnight.
He did not look better for his travels; one in the crowd waiting for the arrival of the train might have supposed that he had suffered on the sea-passage and was not yet quite recovered. Having bidden a porter look after the bag which was his only luggage, he walked to the book-stall to buy a periodical that he wished to take home with him. And there he came face to face with two people whom he knew. Mr. Dalmaine was just turning from the stall with an evening paper, and by his side was Paula. Egremont had not seen either since their marriage.
The three pairs of eyes focussed on one point. Egremont saluted - did it nervously, for he was prepared for nothing less than an encounter with acquaintances. He saw a smile come to Paula's face; he saw her on the point of extending her hand; then, to his amazement, he heard a sharp 'Paula!' from Dalmaine, and husband and wife turned from him. It was the cut direct, or would have been, but for that little piece of impulsiveness on Paula's part. The two walked towards one of the platforms, and it was plain that Dalmaine was delivering himself in an undertone of a gentlemanly reproof.
He stood disconcerted. What might this mean? Was it merely an urbane way of reminding him that he had neglected certain civilities demanded by the social code? Dalmaine would doubtless be punctilious; he was a rising politician. Yet the insult was too pronounced: it suggested some grave ground of offence.
As the cab bore him homewards, he felt that this was an ominous event for the moment of his return to London. He had had no heart to come back; from the steamer he had gazed sadly on the sunny shores of France, and on landing at Dover the island air was hard to breathe. Yet harder the air of London streets. The meeting in the station became a symbol of stiff, awkward, pretentious Anglicism. He had unkind sentiments towards his native country, and asked himself how he was going to live in England henceforth.
His room in Great Russell Street seemed to have suffered neglect during his absence; his return was unexpected; everything seemed unhomely and unwelcoming. The great front of the British Museum frowned, as if to express disapproval of such aimless running hither and thither in one who should be spending his days soberly and strenuously: even the pigeons walked or flew with balance of purpose, with English respectability. It seemed to have rained all day; the evening sky was heavy and featureless.
The landlady presented herself. She was grieved exceedingly that she had not known of Mr. Egremont's coming, but everything should be made comfortable in less than no time. He would have a fire? To be sure; it was a little chilly, though really 'summer has come upon us all at a jump, whilst you've been away, sir.'
'I got your telegram, sir, that I wasn't to send any letters on. Gentlemen have called and I --'
'Indeed? Who has called?'
'Why, sir, on the day after you went - I dare say it was nine o'clock in the evening, or a little later - someone came, wishing very much to see you. He wouldn't give a name. I don't think it was a gentleman; it seemed like somebody coming on business. He was very anxious to have your address. Of course I didn't give it. I just said that any note he liked to leave should be forwarded at once.'
'A dark man, with a beard? A working man?'
'No doubt the one you're thinking of, sir. He called again - let me see, four or five days after.'
'Called again? Then it couldn't be the man I mean.'
He entered into a fuller description of Gilbert Grail. The landlady identified the caller as Grail beyond all doubt.
'What day was it?'
'Why, sir, it 'ud be Wednesday; yes, Wednesday.'
'H'm! And you told him I had left Jersey?'
'Yes, sir. He said he knew that, and that --'
'Said he knew it?' repeated Egremont, astonished.
'Yes, sir, and that he wished to see if you had got home again.'
'Has he been since?'
'No, sir, but - I was coming in a night or two after, sir, and I saw him standing on the opposite side of the way, looking at the house. He hadn't called, however, and he didn't again.'
Egremont bent his eyes on the ground, and delayed a moment before asking:
'Who else has been?'
'A gentleman; I don't know who it was. The servant went to the door. He said he only wished to know if you were in town or not. He wouldn't leave a name.'
Egremont's face changed to annoyance. He did not care to pursue the subject.
'Let me have something to eat, please,' he said.
The landlady having withdrawn, he at once sat down to his desk and wrote a note. It was to Grail, and ran in substance:
'I am just back from the Continent. Am I right in thinking that it is you who have called here twice in my absence? If so, your second call was at a time when I hoped you were out of London. Do let me see you as soon as possible. Of course you received my letter from Jersey? Shall I come to you, or will you come here? I will stay in to-night. I send this by a messenger, as I wish you to receive it immediately.'
The landlady had a son at home, a lad of sixteen. Having discovered that the boy's services were available, Egremont gave him directions. He was to take a cab and drive to the library in Brook Street. If he should not find Grail there, he was to proceed to Walnut Tree Walk. If Grail would come back with him, so much the better.
Walter was left to refresh himself after his journey. He changed his clothes, and presently sat down to a meal. But appetite by this time failed him. He had the table cleared ten minutes after it was laid.
He was in the utmost uneasiness. Could it be Grail who had called? He tried to assure himself that it must be a mistake. How could Grail expect him to be in town, after reading that letter from Jersey? If indeed the visitor were Gilbert, some catastrophe had befallen. But he would not entertain such a fear. Then the second caller; that might be any acquaintance. Still, it was strange that he too had refused his name.
You know the state of mind in which, whatever one thinks of, a pain, a fear, draws the thought another way. It was so with Egremont. The two mysterious callers and the annoying scene at the railway station plagued him successively, and for background to them all was a shadow of indefinite apprehension.
He could scarcely endure his impatience. It seemed as though the messenger would never return. The lad presented himself, however, without undue delay. He had found Mr. Grail, he said, at the second address.
'And whom did you see in Brook Street?'
'A woman, sir; she said Mr. Grail didn't live there.'
'He couldn't come with you?'
'No, sir. But he said he'd come very soon.'
'Thank you. That will do.'
So Grail was not at the library. Then of a certainty something had happened. Thyrza was ill; perhaps --
He walked about the room. That dread physical pain which clutches at all the inner parts when one is waiting in agonised impatience for that which will be misery when it comes, racked him so that at moments he had to lean for support. He felt how the suffering of the last fortnight, in vain fled from hither and thither, had reduced his strength. Since he took leave of Thyrza, he had not known one moment of calm. When passion was merciful for a time, fear had taken its turn to torment him. It had not availed to demonstrate to himself that fear must be groundless. Love from of old has had a comrade superstition; if he awoke from a wretched dream, he interpreted it as sympathy with Thyrza in some dreadful trial. And behold! he had been right. His flight had profited nothing; woe had come upon her he loved, and upon the man he most desired to befriend.
Half an hour after the return of the messenger, the servant came to the door and said that 'Mr. Grail' was below.
'Yes. I'll see him.'
He spoke the words with difficulty. He advanced to the middle of the room. Gilbert came in, and the door was closed behind him.
The man looked as if he had risen from his death-bed to obey this summons. The flesh of his face had shrunk, and left the lines of his countenance sharp. His eye-sockets were cavernous; the dark eyes had an unnatural lustre. His hair and beard were abandoned to neglect. His garments hung with strange looseness about him. He stood there, just within the door, his gaze fixed on Egremont, a gaze wherein suspicion and reproach and all unutterable woe were blended.
Walter took a step forward, vainly holding out his hand.
'Grail, what has happened? You are ill. What does it mean?'
'Why have you sent for me, Mr. Egremont?'
The question was uttered with some sternness, but bodily weakness subdued the voice, which shook. And when he had spoken, his eyes fell.
'Because I want to know what is the matter,' Egremont replied, in quick, unnerved tones. 'Have you been here to try and see me?'
'Yes, I have.'
'Why? you knew I was away. What has happened, Grail?'
'I thought you knew, Mr. Egremont.'
'How should I know? I have heard nothing from London for a fortnight. You speak to me in an unfriendly way. Tell me at once what you mean.'
Gilbert looked up for a moment, looked indignantly, bitterly. But his eyes drooped again as he spoke.
'A fortnight ago Miss Trent left her home, and we can hear nothing of her. I tried to find you, because I had reason to think that you knew where she was.'
Walter felt it as a relief. He had waited for something worse. Only after-thought could occupy itself with the charge distinctly made against him. He said, as soon as he could command his voice:
'You were wrong in thinking so. I know nothing of Miss Trent. I have no idea where she can have gone.'
It was only when he found Grail's eyes fixed upon him that he added, after a pause:
'What were the reasons that led you to think so?'
'You know nothing?' Gilbert said, slowly.
'Nothing whatever. How could you think I did? I don't understand you.'
Walter was not used to speak untruthfully. He knew all this time that a man upon whom a charge such as this had come as a sheer surprise would have met it with quite other face and accent. Remembering all that had passed between Thyrza and himself, remembering all that he had undergone, all that he had at one moment proposed, he could not express the astonishment which would have given evidence on his behalf. As yet he had not even tried to affect indignation, for it was against his nature to play the hypocrite. He knew that his manner was all but a tacit admission that appearances were against him. But agitation drove him to the brink of anger, and when Gilbert stood mute, with veiled eyes, he continued impetuously:
'I tell you that you have amazed me by your news. Are you accusing me of something? You must speak more plainly. Do you mean that suspicion has fallen upon me? How? I don't - I can't understand you!'
'I thought you would understand me,' Gilbert replied, gravely, not offensively, with far more dignity than the other had been able to preserve. 'Several things compelled me to believe that you knew of her leaving us. I was told of your meetings with her at the library.'
He paused. Like Egremont, he could not speak his whole thought. Whilst there remained a possibility that Egremont indeed knew nothing of Thyrza's disappearance, he might not strengthen his case by making use of the girl's confession to her sister. He could only make use of outward circumstances.
'The meetings at the library?' Egremont repeated. 'But do you think they had any meaning that I can't at once and freely explain to you? It was the idlest folly on my part. I had a plan that I would get books on to the shelves that week, and at the end of it take you there and surprise you. Didn't I imply that in my letter to you from Jersey? It was childish, of course. On the Monday, Miss Trent surprised me at work. She had happened to see a box being brought in, and naturally came to see what was going on. I was unthinking enough to ask her to keep the secret. By allowing her to help me, I encouraged her to come again the next day. So much was wholly my fault, but surely not a very grave one. Do you imagine, Grail, that anything passed between us on those two mornings which you might not have heard? How is it possible for you, for you, to pass from the fact of that foolish secret to such suspicions as these?
In the pause Gilbert offered no word.
'And who told you about it? Evidently someone bent on mischief.'
Again a pause. Gilbert stood unmoving.
'You still suspect me? You think I am lying to you? Do you know me no better than that?'
It rang false, it rang false. His own voice sounded to him as that of an actor, who does his poor best to be forcible and pathetic. Yet what lie had he told? Could he say all he thought he had read in Thyrza's eyes? There was the parting that night beyond Lambeth Bridge; how could he speak of that? Was he himself not absolutely innocent? Had he not by a desperate struggle avoided as much as a glance of tenderness at the girl for whom he was mad with love?
Gilbert spoke at length.
'I find it very hard to believe that you know nothing more. There are other things. As soon as we knew that she was gone, that Friday night, I came here to ask for you.'
'And why? Why to me?'
'Because she had been seen with you at the library, and people had begun to talk. They told me you were gone, and I asked for your address. They wouldn't give it me.'
'That meant nothing whatever. It was merely my landlady's idea of her responsibility to me.'
'Yes, that may be. On Saturday night a letter came from you, from Jersey.'
'Well? Was that the kind of letter I could have written if I had been such a traitor to you?'
'I don't know what the letter would have seemed to me if I had been able to judge it with my ordinary mind. I couldn't: I was going through too much. I believed it false. On Monday I went to Southampton, and from there at night to Jersey; it was the earliest that I could get there.'
'You went to Jersey?'
'I had no choice. I had to see you. And I found you had gone away on Saturday morning, gone to France. It was only Saturday night that I got your letter. There was no word in it about going to France; instead of that, you said plainly that you would be in Jersey for a week or more.'
'It is true. I see how I have made evidence against myself.'
He said it with impatience, but at once added in a steadier voice:
'I wrote the letter and posted it on Friday night, when I had only been at St. Aubin's half a day. The very next morning I was compelled by restlessness to give up my idea of remaining there. When I wrote to you I had no thought of leaving the island.'
How pleasant it was to be able to speak with unshadowed veracity! Walter all but smiled, and, when the other made no reply, he went on in a voice almost of pleading:
'You believe this? Is your mind so set against me that you will accuse me of any cowardice rather than credit my word?'
A change came over Gilbert's face. It was wrung with pain, and as he looked up it seemed to cost him a horrible effort to speak.
'If,' he said, 'in a moment of temptation you did her the greatest wrong that a man can do to a woman, you would perhaps say and do anything rather than confess it.'
Walter tried to meet those eyes steadily, but failed. He broke forth into passionate self-defence.
'That means you think the worst of me that one man can think of another. You are wrong You are basely wrong! You speak of a moment of temptation. Suppose me to have suffered that; what sort of temptation do you suppose would have assailed me? A man is tempted according to his fibre. Do you class me with those who can only be tempted by base suggestions? What reason have I ever given you to think of me so? Suppose me to have been tempted. You conclude that I must have aimed at stealing the girl from you solely to gratify myself, heedless of her, heedless of you. Such a motive as that is to outweigh every higher instinct I possess, to blind me to past and future, to make me all at once a heartless, unimaginative brute. That is your view of my character, Grail!'
Gilbert had not the appearance of a man who listens. Since entering the room, he had not moved from the spot where he stood, and now, with his head again drooping, he seemed sunk in a reverie of the profoundest sadness. But he heard, and he strove to believe. A fortnight ago he would not have thought it possible for Walter Egremont to speak a word of which the sincerity would seem doubtful. Since then he had spent days and nights such as sap the foundations of a man's moral being and shake convictions which appeared impregnable. The catastrophe which had come upon him was proportionate in its effects to the immeasurable happiness which preceded it. Remember that it was not only the imaginary wrong from which his mind suffered; the fact that Thyrza loved Egremont was in itself an agony almost enough to threaten his reason. His love was not demonstrative; perhaps he did not himself know all its force until jealousy taught him. How, think you, did he spend that night on the Channel, voyaging from Southampton to Jersey? What sort of companions were the winds and waves as he paced the deck in the dim light before dawn, straining his eyes for the first sight of land? To the end of all things that night would remain with him, a ghastly memory. And since then he had not known one full hour of forgetfulness. The days and the nights had succeeded each other as in a torture-chamber. His body had wasted; his mind ever renewed its capability of anguish. With all appearances against Egremont, could he preserve the nice balance of his judgment through an experience such as this?
Had he seen Egremont at once, after Thyrza's disappearance, it would not have been so hard for him to credit the denial. The blow was not felt to its full until the night had passed. Thyrza's exculpation of Egremont would then have been strong upon the latter's side. But the fruitless journey frenzied him. It was impossible for him to avoid the belief that the letter had been contrived to deceive him. All the suspicions he had entertained grew darker as his suffering increased. His meeting with Egremont at the end of Newport Street on the Wednesday night seemed to him beyond doubt condemnatory. He remembered the young man's haste and obvious agitation. Then Thyrza's words ceased to have weight; he thought them due to her desire to avert suspicion from her lover. And now that he was at length face to face with the man whom in his lonely woe he had cursed as the falsest friend, his ear was keen to detect every note of treachery, his eyes read Egremont's countenance with preternatural keenness. Walter could not sustain such proof; his agitation spoke against him. Only when he at length passed from uncertain argument and pleading to scornful repudiation of the charge, did his utterances awake in the hearer the old associations of sincerity and nobleness. How many a night Gilbert had hung on every word that fell from him! Could he speak thus and be no more than a contemptible hypocrite?
Walter paused for a few moments. When no reply came he continued with the same warmth:
'I have told you that, on those two mornings, when she was with me in the library, no word passed between us that you might not have heard. It is true. But one thing I did say to her which doubtless would not have been said in your presence. She was speaking to me as if to a superior; I begged her to let there be an end of that, and to allow me to call myself her friend. I meant it in the purest sense, and in that sense she understood it. If I was wrong in taking that freedom with her, at least there was no thought of wrong in my mind.'
'You met her on Wednesday night in that week,' Gilbert said, speaking with uncertain voice. 'The night that you saw me and said you had been to Bunce.'
'Do you know of that from some spy, her enemy and mine - or how?'
'I know it. I can't tell you how.'
'Yes, I met her that night. Not by appointment, as you suppose. It was by mere chance, as I came away from Bunce's house. I told her I was leaving town next day, and I said good-bye to her. Again, not a syllable was uttered that any one might not have heard.'
'Were you coming away from her, then, when I saw you?' Gilbert asked, in a hard voice.
'No, not straight from her.'
As is wont to be the case with us when we have recourse to equivocation, Egremont thought that he read in his rival's countenance a scornful surmise of the truth. As is also wont to happen, this sense of detection heated his blood, and for a moment he could have found pleasure in flinging out an angry defiance. But as he looked Grail in the face, the latter's eyes fell, and something, some slight movement of feature, touching once more Walter's sense of compassion, shamed him from unworthy utterance. He said, in a lower voice:
'If I had yielded to temptation, if I had so far lost control of myself as to speak a word to her which at once and for ever altered our relations, do you think I should have tried to keep secret what had happened? Do you think I could have conceived a desire which had her suffering for its end? Are you so embittered that you can imagine of me nothing better than that? You think I could have made her my victim?'
Grail read his face. The emphasis of this speech was deliberate, could not be misunderstood. For the first time Gilbert turned and moved a little apart.
Walter had not the exclusive privilege of being an idealist. When at length he spoke out of his deepest feeling, when he revealed, though but indirectly, the meaning of his agitation, of his evasions, and doubtful behaviour, he had found the way of convincing his hearer. It was a new blow to Gilbert, but it put an end to his darkest fears and to the misery of his misjudgment. In the silence that followed all the details of the story passed before him with a new significance. The greatness of his own love - a love which drew into its service every noblest element of his nature, enabled him, once the obscuring mists dispelled, to interpret his rival's mind with justice. Regarding Egremont again, he could read aright the signs of suffering that were on his face. It was with a strange bitter joy that he recovered his faith in the man who had been so much to him. Yet his first words seemed to express more of passionate resentment than any he had yet spoken.
'Then you acted wrongly!' he exclaimed, in a firm, clear voice. 'You were wrong in allowing her to stay and help you in the library. You were wrong in speaking to her as you did, in asking her to address you as an equal, and to let you be her friend. You must have known then what your real meaning was. It is only half a truth that you said and did nothing to disturb her mind. You were not honest with yourself, and you had no just regard for me. You did yield to temptation, and all you have said in defence of yourself has only been true in sound.'
'No! You go too far, Grail. You accused me of baseness, and I have never had a base thought.'
Then came a long silence. Gilbert stood motionless, Egremont walked slowly from place to place. The point at issue between the two men was changed; anger and suspicion were at an end, but so was all hope of restoring the old union.
Then Egremont said:
'You must tell me one thing plainly. Do you still doubt my word when I say that I knew nothing of her flight from you, and know nothing of where she now is?'
'I believe you,' was answered, simply.
'And more than that. Do you think me capable of wronging her and you in the way you suspected?'
'I was wrong. I was unjust to you.'
Grail could suffer jealousy, but was incapable of malice. The stab of the revelation that had been made might go through and through his heart, but the wound would breed no evil humours. He made his admission with the relief which comes of recovered self-respect.
'Thank you for that, Grail,' Walter replied, moved as a gentle nature always is by magnanimity.
After another pause, he said:
'May I ask you anything more about her? Had she money? Could she have gone far?'
'At most she had a few pence.'
'Did she leave no written word?'
'Yes. She wrote something for her sister.'
Walter hesitated. Grail, after a struggle with himself, repeated the substance of Thyrza's note.
A few more words were interchanged, then Gilbert said:
'I will leave you now, Mr. Egremont.'
Walter dreaded this parting. Could he let Grail go from him and say no word about the library? Yet what was to be said? Everything was hopelessly at an end; the hint of favour from him to the other was henceforth insult. Gilbert was moving towards him, but he could not look up. Forcing himself to speak:
'If you find her - if you hear anything - will you tell me? I mean only, will you let me know the fact that you have news?'
'Yes, I will.'
At length their eyes met. Then Grail held out his hand, and Egremont clasped it firmly.
'This is not the end between us,' he said, huskily. 'You must wish that you had never seen me, but I can never lose the hope that we may some day be friends again.'
The haggard man went his way in silence. Egremont, throwing himself upon a seat in utter weariness, felt more alone than ever yet in his life. . . .
Who or what was left to him now? A little while ago, when he had felt that his connection with the world of wealth and refinement was practically at an end, it seemed more than a substitute to look forward to intimacy with that one household in Lambeth, and to associations that would arise thence. He believed that it would henceforth content him to have friends in the sphere to which he belonged by birth, and, for the needs of his mind, to find companionship among his books. He saw before him a career of practical usefulness such as only a man in his peculiar position could pursue with unwavering zeal. What now was to become of his future? Where were his friends?
Grail had said that in Lambeth people were gossiping evil of him. Such gossip, he understood too well, would have its lasting effect. No contradiction could avail against it. Even if Thyrza returned, it would be impossible for her to resume her life in the old places; the truth could never be so spread as to counteract the harm already done. Lambeth had lost its free library. How long would it wait before another man was found able and willing to do so much on its behalf?
Looking in the other direction, he could now explain that scene at Charing Cross. Dalmaine, through his connection with Lambeth, had already heard the story. He took this way of showing that he was informed of everything, and of manifesting his august disapproval. It needed only a word of admonition to Paula, and she at once recognised how improper it would be to hold further relations with so unprincipled a man. So they turned away, and, in the vulgar phrase, 'cut' him
The Dalmaines knowing, of course their relatives and their friends knew. The Tyrrells would by this time have discussed the whole shocking affair, doubtless with the decision that they could no longer be 'at home' to Mr. Egremont.
And if the Tyrrells - then Annabel Newthorpe.
Would Annabel give faith to such a charge against him? Perhaps such evidence would be adduced to her that she could have no choice but to judge and condemn him. Gilbert Grail had thought him infamous; perhaps Annabel would hesitate as little. She would have remarked a strangeness in his manner to her, explicable now. Believing, how she must scorn him! How those beautiful eyes of hers would speak in one glance of cold contempt, if ever he passed beneath them! She might take the nobler part; she might hold it incredible till she had a confession from his very lips. But were women magnanimous? And Annabel, very clear in thought, very pure in soul - was she after all so far above her sisters as to face all hazard of human weakness in defence of an ideal?
Annabel, now in London, would write the news to Mrs. Ormonde. Would it receive credence from her - his dearest friend? Assuredly not, if she had known nothing to give the calumny startling support. But there was that letter he wrote to her about Thyrza; there was her recollection of the interview in Great Russell Street, when it might be that he had betrayed himself. She had found him in a state of perturbation which he could not conceal; it was on the eve of his own departure from London - of Thyrza's disappearance. Well, she too must form her own judgment. If she wrote to him and asked plainly for information, he would know how to reply. Till she wrote, he must keep silence.
So there was the head-roll of his friends. No, he had omitted Annabel's father. Mr. Newthorpe was a student, and apt to be humorously cynical in his judgment of men. To him the story would not appear incredible. Youth, human nature, a passionate temperament; these explain so much to the unprejudiced mind. Mr. Newthorpe must go with the rest.
For other acquaintances he cared nothing.
So his fate at last had declared itself. Even though the all but impossible should befall, and Grail should still marry Thyrza, how could the schemes for common activity survive this shock? Say what he might, he had no longer even the desire to work personally for the old aims. How hard to believe that he was the same man who had lectured to that little band of hearers on English Literature, who had uttered with such vehemence the 'Thoughts for the Present!' That period of his life was gone by like smoke; the heart in which such enthusiasms were nourished had been swept by an all-consuming fire. Henceforth he must live for himself, the vainest of all lives. To such a one the world was a sorry place. He had no mind to taste such pleasures as it offered to a rich man with no ideal save physical enjoyment; he no longer cared to search out its beautiful things, to probe its mysteries. To what end, since all pleasure and all knowledge must end in himself? . . .
Where at this moment was Thyrza? The thought had mingled with all those others. Did she then love him so much that marriage with Grail had become impossible - that she would rather face every hardship and peril of a hidden life in some dark corner of London? For she lived; proof of it seemed to he in the refusal of his mind to contemplate a fatal issue of her trial. She lived, and held him in her heart - the strong, passionate heart, source of music and of love. And he - could he foresee the day when he should no longer love her?
But of that she knew nothing, and must never know of it. The one outlook for his life lay yonder, where love was beckoning; grant him leave to follow, and what limitless prospect opened in place of the barren hills which now enclosed him! But follow he must not. In that respect nothing was altered. When he thought of Thyrza, it must still be with the hope that she would return and fulfil her promise to Gilbert Grail.
At a late hour he went to his bedroom. He lay down with a weary brain, and, in trying to ask himself what he should do on the morrow, fell asleep.
Mrs. Ormonde waited anxiously for Annabel's first letter from London. Neither of them had spoken of Egremont after Annabel's visit with the news from Paula. The girl gave no sign of trouble; she appeared to continue her preparations with the same enjoyment as before. It was doubtful whether, in writing, she would make any reference to Egremont, but Mrs. Ormonde hoped there would be some word.
The letter came five days after Annabel's arrival in London, and was short. It mentioned visits to the Academy and the Grosvenor, made a few comments, spoke of this and that old acquaintance reseen; then came a concluding paragraph:
'Father called at Mr. Egremont's two days ago, but did not see him. He learnt that Mr. Egremont had been at home for one day, but was gone out of town again. My aunt, as I gather from a chance word, takes the least charitable view; I fear that was to be expected. We, however, know the truth - do we not? It is sad, but not shameful. I have no means of hearing anything about the library. I believe father has been to Lambeth, but he and I do not speak on the subject. Paula, for some reason, avoids me.'
It was one of several letters that arrived that morning. After opening two appeals from charitable institutions, Mrs. Ormonde found an envelope which, from the handwriting upon it, she judged to be a similar communication from a private source. The address was laboriously scrawled, and ill-spelt; the postage stamp was badly affixed; there were finger-marks on the back. Such envelopes generally came from the parents of children who had been in the Home, and frequently - dirtiness announced such cases - made appeal for temporary assistance. The present missive, however, was misleading; its contents proved to be these:
'Madam, - We have a young girl with us as lies very bad. She come to us not more than three week ago and asked for ployment, and me and my husband wasn't unwilling for to give her a chance, seeing she looked respectable, though we thought it wasn't unlikely as there might be something wrong, because of her looks and her clothing, which wasn't neither of them like the girl out of work, and then it's true she couldn't give no reference. And now she's had fainting fits, and lies very bad, having broke two dishes with falling, and which of course she couldn't help, and we don't say as she could. My husband told me as I ought for to look in her pocket, and which I did, and there I found a envelope as had wrote your name and address on it. So I take the liberty of writing, and which I am not much of a scholar, because she do lie very bad, and if so be she has friends, they had ought to know. I do what I can for her, but I have the customers to tend to, because we keep a coffee-shop, which you'll find it at Number seventeen, Bank Street, off the Caledonian Road. And I beg to end. From yours obedient,
There could be little doubt who this young girl was. Bad spelling and worse writing rendered the letter difficult to translate into English, but from the first sentence Mrs. Ormonde thought of Thyrza Trent. The description would apply to Thyrza, and Thyrza might by some chance have kept in her pocket the address which, as Mrs. Ormonde knew, Bunce had given her when she brought Bessie to Eastbourne.
Her first emotion was of joy. This was quickly succeeded by doubts and fears in plenty, for it was difficult to explain Thyrza's taking such a step as this letter suggested. But the course to be pursued was clear. She took the first train to London.
Caledonian Road is a great channel of traffic running directly north from King's Cross to Holloway. It is doubtful whether London can show any thoroughfare of importance more offensive to eye and ear and nostril. You stand at the entrance to it, and gaze into a region of supreme ugliness; every house front is marked with meanness and inveterate grime; every shop seems breaking forth with mould or dry-rot; the people who walk here appear one and all to be employed in labour that soils body and spirit. Journey on the top of a tram-car from King's Cross to Holloway, and civilisation has taught you its ultimate achievement in ignoble hideousness. You look off into narrow side-channels where unconscious degradation has made its inexpugnable home, and sits veiled with refuse. You pass above lines of railway, which cleave the region with black-breathing fissure. You see the pavements half occupied with the paltriest and most sordid wares; the sign of the pawnbroker is on every hand; the public-houses look and reek more intolerably than in other places. The population is dense, the poverty is undisguised. All this northward-bearing tract, between Camden Town on the one hand and Islington on the other, is the valley of the shadow of vilest servitude. Its public monument is a cyclopean prison: save for the desert around the Great Northern Goods Depôt, its only open ground is a malodorous cattle-market. In comparison, Lambeth is picturesque and venerable, St. Giles's is romantic, Hoxton is clean and suggestive of domesticity, Whitechapel is full of poetry, Limehouse is sweet with sea-breathings.
Hither Mrs. Ormonde drove from Victoria Station. The neighbourhood was unknown to her save by name. On entering the Caledonian Road, her cabman had to make inquiries for Bank Street, which he at length found not far from the prison. He drew up before a small coffee-shop, on the window whereof was pasted this advertisement: 'Dine here! Best quality. Largest quantity! Lowest price.' Over the door was the name 'Gandle.'
Mrs. Ormonde bade the driver wait, and entered. It was the dinner-hour of this part of the world. Every available place was occupied by men, some in their shirt-sleeves, who were doing ample justice to the fare set before them by Mrs. Gandle and her daughter. Beyond the space assigned to the public was a partition of wood, four feet high, with a door in the middle; this concealed the kitchen, whence came clouds of steam, and the sound of frying, and odours manifold. At the entrance of a lady - a lady without qualification - such of the feeders as happened to look from their plates stared in wonderment. It was an embarrassing position. Mrs. Ormonde walked quickly down the narrow gangway, and to the door in the partition. A young woman was just coming forth, with steaming plates on a tray.
'Can I see Mrs. Gandle?' the visitor asked.
The girl cried out: 'Mother, you're wanted!' and pushed past, with grins bestowed on either side.
Above the partition appeared a face like a harvest moon.
'I have come in reply to your letter,' Mrs. Ormonde said, 'the letter about the girl who is ill.'
'Oh, you've come, have you, mum!' was the reply, in a voice at once respectful and surprised. 'Would you be so good as step inside, mum? Please push the door.'
Mrs. Ormonde was relieved to pass into the privacy of the kitchen. It was a room of some ten feet square, insufferably hot, very dirty, a factory for the production of human fodder. On a side table stood a great red dripping mass, whence Mrs. Gandle severed portions to be supplied as roast beef. Vessels on the range held a green substance which was called cabbage, and yellow lumps doled forth as potatoes. Before the fire, bacon and sausages were frizzling; above it was spluttering a beef-steak. On a sink in one corner were piled eating utensils which awaited the wipe of a very loathsome rag hanging hard by. Other objects lay about in indescribable confusion.
Mrs. Gandle was a very stout woman, with bare arms. She perspired freely, and was not a little disconcerted by the appearance of her visitor. Her moon-face had a simple and not disagreeable look.
'You won't mind me a-getting on with my work the whiles I talk, mum ?' she said. 'The men's tied to time, most of em, and I've often lost a customer by keepin' him waitin'. They're not too sweet-tempered in these parts. I was born and bred in Peckham myself, and only come here when I married my second husband, which he's a plumber by trade. I can't so much as ask you for to sit down, mum. You see, we have to 'conomise room, as my husband says. But I can talk and work, both; only I've got to keep one ear open --'
A shrill voice cried from the shop:
'Two beefs, 'taters an' greens! One steak-pie, 'taters! Two cups o' tea!'
'Right!' cried Mrs. Gandle, and proceeded to execute the orders.
'What is this poor girl's name?' Mrs. Ormonde asked. 'You didn't mention it.'
'Well, mum, she calls herself Mary Wood. Do you know any one o' that name?'
'I think not.'
'Now come along, 'Lizabeth!' screamed the woman of a sudden, at the top of her voice. 'Don't stand a-talkin' there! Two beefs, 'taters and greens.'
'That's right, Mrs. Gandle!' roared some man. 'You give it her. It's the usial Bow-bells with her an' Sandy Dick 'ere!'
There was laughter, and 'Lizabeth came running for her orders. Mrs. Gandle, with endless interruptions, proceeded thus:
'Between you and me, mum, I don't believe as that is her name. But she give it at first, and she's stuck to it. No, I don't think she's worse to-day, though she talked a lot in the night. Yes, we've had a doctor. She wouldn't have me send for nobody, and said as there was nothing ailed her, but then it come as she couldn't stand on her feet. She's a littlish girl, may be seventeen or eighteen, with yellow-like hair. I haven't knowed well what to do; I thought I'd ought to send her to the 'orspital, but then I found the henvelope in her pocket, an' we thought we'd just wait a day to see if anybody answered us. And I didn't like to act heartless with her, neither; she's a motherless thing, so she says, an' only wants for to earn her keep and her sleep; an' I don't think there's no harm in her, s'far as I can see. She come into the shop last night was three weeks, just after eleven o'clock, and she says, 'If you please, mum,' she says, speakin' very nice, 'can you give me a bed for sevenpence?' 'Why, I don't know about that,' says I, 'I haven't a bedroom as I let usial under a shilling.' Then she was for goin' straight away, without another word. And she was so quiet like, it took me as I couldn't send her off without asking her something about herself. And she said she hadn't got no 'ome in London, and only sevenpence in her pocket, and as how she wanted to find work. And she must have walked about a deal, she looked that dead beat.
'Well, I just went in and spoke a word to Mr. Gandle. It's true as we wanted someone to help me 'an 'Lizabeth; we've wanted someone bad for a long time. And this young girl wouldn't be amiss, we thought, for waitin' in the shop; the men likes to see a noo face, you know, mum, an' all the more if it's a good-looking 'un. If she'd been a orn'ary lookin' girl, of course I couldn't have not so much as thought of it, as things was. She told me plain an' straightforward as she couldn't say who she was and where she come from. And it was something in her way o' speakin', a kind o' quietness like, as you don't hoften get in young girls nowadays. They're so for'ard, as their parents ain't got the same 'old on 'em as they had when I was young. I shouldn't wonder if you've noticed the same thing with your servants, mum. An' so I said as I'd let her have a bed for sevenpence; and if you'd a' seen how thankful she looked. She wasn't the kind to go an' sleep anywhere, an' goodness only knows what might a' come to her at that hour o' the night. And the next mornin' she did look that white an' poorly, when I met her a-comin' down the stairs. 'Well,' says I, 'an' what about breakfast, eh?' She went a bit red like, an' said as it didn't matter; she'd go out an' find work. 'Well, look here now,' says I, 'suppose you wash up them things there to pay for a cup o' tea and two slices?' An' then she looked at me thankful again, an' says as it was kind o' me. Well, of course, you may say as it isn't everybody 'ud a' took her in for sevenpence, but then, as I was a-sayin', we did want somebody to help me an' 'Lizabeth, an' I don't take much to myself for what I did.'
'You acted well and kindly, Mrs. Gandle,' said Mrs. Ormonde.
So the long story went on. The girl had been only too glad to stay as general servant, and worked well, worked as hard as any one could expect, Mrs. Gandle said. But she was far from well, and every day, after the first week, her strength fell off. At length she had a fainting fit, falling with two dishes in her hands. Her work had to be lightened. But the fainting was several times repeated, and, now three days ago, illness it was impossible to struggle against kept her to her bed.
'Well, I begged an' I prayed of her as she'd tell me where she belonged, and where her friends was. But she could only cry an' say as she'd go away, and wouldn't be a burden. 'Don't talk silly, child,' I kep' sayin'. 'How can you go away in this state? Unless you're goin' to your friends?' But she said no, as she hadn't no friends to go to. An' she cried so, it fair went to my heart, the poor thing! An' I begun to be that afraid as she'd die. I am that glad as you've come, mum. If you don't mind waitin' another ten minutes, the worst o' this 'll be over, an' then I can leave 'Lizabeth to it, and go upstairs with you.'
'Is she conscious at present?'
'She was, a little while ago. It is the nights is worst, of course. Last night she talked an' talked: it's easy to see she has some trouble on her mind. I haven't got nobody as can sit with her when we have the shop full. But I was with her up to three o'clock this morning; then 'Lizabeth took my place till the shop was opened for the early corfee. I don't think she's no worse, and the doctor he don't think so. He's a clever man, I believe; at all events he has that name, as I may say, and he lives just round here in Winter Street, a house with green-painted railing, and ''Spensary' wrote up on the window'
'Will he call again to-day?'
'I don't suppose as he would, but he's sure to be at 'ome in an hour, and, if you'd like, mum, I'd just send 'Lizabeth round.'
'Thank you; I think I'll go and see him.'
At last the burden of the dinner-hour was over, and 'Lizabeth could be left alone for a little. Mrs. Gandle washed her hands, in a perfunctory way, and guided her visitor to a dark flight of stairs. They ascended. On the top floor the woman stopped and whispered:
'That's the room. Should I just look in first, mum?'
Mrs. Gandle entered and came forth again.
'She seems to me to be asleep, mum. She lays very still, and her eyes is shut.'
'I'll go in. I shall sit with her for an hour and then go to see the doctor.'
Mrs. Ormonde passed in. It was a mean little room, not as tidy as it might have been. and far from as clean. There on the low pillow was a pale face, with golden hair disordered about the brow; a face so wasted that it was not easy in the first moment to identify it with that which had been so wonderful in its spell-bound beauty by the sea-shore. But it was Thyrza.
Her eyes were only half closed, and it was not a natural sleep that held her. Mrs. Ormonde examined her for several moments, then just touched her forehead. Thyrza stirred and muttered something, but gave no sign of consciousness.
The hour went by very slowly. The traffic in the street was incessant and noisy; two men, who were selling coals from a cart, for a long time vied with each other in the utterance of roars drawn out in afflicting cadence. Mrs. Ormonde now sat by the bed, regarding Thyrza, now went to the window and looked at the grimy houses opposite. The prescribed interval had almost elapsed, when Thyrza suddenly raised herself and said with distinctness:
'You promised me, Lyddy; you know you promised!'
Mrs. Ormonde was standing at the foot of the bed. She drew nearer, and, as the sick girl regarded her, asked:
'Do you know me, Thyrza?'
Thyrza fell back, fear-stricken. She spoke a few disconnected words, then her eyes half-closed again, and the lethargy returned upon her.
In a few minutes Mrs. Ormonde left the room and sought her acquaintance in the cooking department. Mrs. Gandle gave her the exact address of the medical man, and she found the house without difficulty.
She had to wait for a quarter of an hour in a bare, dusty, drug-smelling ante-chamber, where also sat a woman who coughed without ceasing, and a boy who had a formidable bandage athwart his face. The practitioner, when he presented himself, failed to inspire her with confidence. He expressed himself so ambiguously about Thyrza's condition and gave on the whole such scanty proof of intelligence that Mrs. Ormonde felt it unsafe to leave him in charge of a case such as this. She easily obtained his permission to summon a doctor with whom she was acquainted.
She drove to the latter's abode, and was fortunate enough to find him at luncheon. She was on terms of intimacy with the family, and accepted very willingly an invitation to join them at their meal. But the doctor could not get to Caledonian Road before the evening. Having made an appointment with him for seven o'clock, she next drove to the east side of Regent's Park, where, in a street of small houses, she knocked at a door and made inquiries for 'Mrs. Emerson.' This lady was at home, the servant said. Mrs. Ormonde went up the first floor and entered a sitting-room.
Its one occupant was a young woman, probably of six-and-twenty, who sat in out-of-doors attire. Her look suggested that she had come home too weary even to take her bonnet off before resting. She had the air of an educated person; her dress, which was plain and decent in the same rather depressing way as the appointment of her room, put it beyond doubt that she spent her days in some one of the manifold kinds of teaching; a roll upon her lap plainly consisted of music. She could not lay claim to good looks, save in the sense that her features were impressed with agreeable womanliness; the smile which followed speedily upon her expression of surprise when Mrs. Ormonde appeared, was natural, homely, and sweet. She threw the roll away, and sprang up with a joyous exclamation:
'To think that you should come just on this day and at this time, Mrs. Ormonde! It's just by chance that I'm at home. I've only this moment come back from Notting Hill, where I found a pupil too unwell to have her lesson. And in half an hour I have to go to St. John's Wood. Just by a chance that I'm here. How vexed I should have been if I'd heard of you coming whilst I was away! Isn't it annoying for people to call whilst one's away? I mean, of course, people one really wants to see.'
'Certainly, things don't often happen so well. I'm in town on very doleful business, and have come to see if you can help me.'
'Help you? How? I do hope I can.'
'Have you still your spare room?'
'Then I may perhaps ask you to let me have it in a few days. I must tell you how it is. A poor girl, in whom I have a great interest, has fallen ill in very dreary lodgings. I don't think it would be possible to move her at present; I don't in fact yet know the nature of her illness exactly, and, of course, if it's anything to be afraid of, I shouldn't bring her. But that is scarcely likely; I fancy she will want only careful nursing. Dr. Lambe is going to see her this evening, and he's just promised me to send a nurse from some institution where he has to call. If we can safely move her presently, may I bring her here?'
'Of course you may, Mrs. Ormonde! I'll get everything ready to night. Will you come up and tell me of anything you'd like me to do?'
'Not now. You look tired, and must rest before you go out again. I'll come and see you again to-morrow.'
'To-morrow? Let me see; I shall be here at twelve, but only for a few minutes; then I shan't be home again till half-past nine. Could you come after then, Mrs. Ormonde?'
'Yes. But what a long day that is! I hope you're not often so late?'
'Oh, I don't mind it a bit,' said the other, cheerfully. 'It's a pupil at Seven Oaks, piano and singing. Indeed I'm very glad. The more the better. They keep me out of mischief.'
Mrs. Ormonde smiled moderately in reply to the laugh with which Mrs. Emerson completed her jest.
'How is your husband?'
'Still far from well. I'm so sorry he isn't in now. I think he's - no, I'm not quite sure where he is; he had to go somewhere on business.'
'He is able to get to business again?' Mrs. Ormonde asked, without looking at the other.
'Not to his regular business. Oh no, that wouldn't be safe yet. He begins to look better, but he's very weak still. It must be very hard for a man of his age to be compelled to guard against all sorts of little things that other people think nothing of, mustn't it?'
'Yes, it must be trying,' Mrs. Ormonde replied, quietly.
Mr. Emerson was a young gentleman of leisurely habits and precarious income. Mrs. Ormonde suspected, and with reason, that he nurtured a feeble constitution at the expense of his wife's labour; he was seldom at home, and the persons interested in Mrs. Emerson had a difficulty in making his nearer acquaintance.
'And I can't think there's another man in the world who would bear it so uncomplainingly. But you know,' she added, laughing again, 'that I'm very proud of my husband. I always make you smile at me, Mrs. Ormonde. But now, I am so very, very sorry, but I'm obliged to go. I manage to catch a 'bus just at the top of the street; if I missed it, I should be half an hour late, and these are very particular people. Oh, I've such a laughable story to tell you about them, but it must wait till to-morrow, Harold says I tell it so well; he's sure I could write a novel if I tried. I think I will try some day; I believe people make a great deal of money out of novels, don't they, Mrs. Ormonde?'
'I have heard of one or two who tried to, but didn't.'
'I do hope the poor girl will soon be well enough to come. I'll get the room thoroughly in order to-night.'
They left the house together. Mrs. Emerson ran in the direction of the omnibus she wished to catch; the other shortly found a vehicle, and drove back again to Bank Street, Caledonian Road.
Thyrza still lay in the same condition. In a little more than half an hour came the trained nurse of Dr. Lambe's sending, and forthwith the sick-room was got into a more tolerable condition, Mrs. Ormonde procuring whatever the nurse desired. Much private talk passed downstairs between Mrs. Gandle and 'Lizabeth, who were greatly astonished at the fuss made over the girl they had supposed friendless.
'Now let this be a lesson to you, 'Lizabeth.' said the good woman, several times. 'It ain't often as you'll lose by doin' a bit o' kindness, and the chance always is as it'll be paid back to you more than you'd never think. Any one can see as this Mrs. Ormonde's a real lady, and when it comes to settlin' up, you'll see if she doesn't know how to behave like a lady.'
Mrs. Ormonde took a room at a private hotel near King's Cross, whither her travelling bag was brought from Victoria. She avoided the part of the town in which acquaintances might hear of her, for her business had to be kept secret. A necessary letter despatched to Mrs. Mapper at The Chestnuts, she went once more to Bank Street and met her friend Dr. Lambe.
She told him, in general terms, all she knew of the circumstances which might have led to Thyrza's illness. At first she had been in doubt whether or not to go to Lambeth and see Lydia Trent, but on the whole it seemed better to take no steps in that direction for the present. Should the case be declared dangerous, Lydia of course must be sent for, but that was a dark possibility from which her thoughts willingly averted themselves. The sister could doubtless throw some light on Thyrza's strange calamity. What did the child's 'You know you promised me' mean? But that would be no aid to the physician, upon whom for the present most depended. Nor did Dr. Lambe exhibit much curiosity. He seemed quickly to gather all it was really necessary for him to know, and, though he admitted that the disorder was likely to be troublesome, he gave an assurance that there was no occasion for alarm.
'You are not associated in her mind with anything distressing?' he asked of Mrs. Ormonde.
'I believe, the opposite.'
'Good. Then be by her side as often as you can, so that she may recognise you as soon as possible.' He added with a smile: 'I needn't inform Mrs. Ormonde how to behave when she is recognised!'
They were at a little distance from the bed, and both looked at the unconscious face.
'A very beautiful girl,' the doctor murmured.
'But you should see her in health.'
'No. I am a trifle susceptible. Well, well, we shall have her through it, no doubt.'
We have to jest a little in the presence of suffering, or how should we live our lives?
The recognition came late on the following afternoon. Thyrza had lain for a time with eyes open, watching the movements of the nurse, but seemingly with no desire to speak. Then Mrs. Ormonde came in. The watchful look at once turned upon her; for a moment that former fear showed itself, and Thyrza made an effort to rise from the pillow. Her strength was too far wasted. But as Mrs. Ormonde drew near, she was plainly known.
'Thyrza, you know me now?'
'Mrs. Ormonde,' was whispered, still with look of alarm and troubled inability to comprehend.
'You have been ill, dear, and I have come to sit with you,' the other went on, in a soothing voice. 'Shall I stay?'
There was no answer for a little, then Thyrza, with sudden revival of memory like a light kindled in her eyes, said painfully:
'Lyddy? - does Lyddy know?'
'Not yet. Do you wish her to?
'No! - Don't tell Lyddy! - I shall be better --'
'No one shall know, Thyrza. Don't speak now. I am going to sit by you.'
Much mental disturbance was evident on the pale face for some time after this, but Thyrza did not speak again, and presently she appeared to sleep. Mrs. Ormonde left the house at midnight and was back again before nine the next morning. Thyrza had been perfectly conscious since daybreak, and had several times asked for the absent friend. She smiled when Mrs. Ormonde came at length and kissed her forehead.
'Better this morning?'
'Much better, I think, Mrs. Ormonde. But I can't lift my arm - it's so heavy.'
The doctor came late in the morning. He was agreeably surprised at the course things were taking. But Thyrza was forbidden to speak, and for much of the day she relapsed into an apathetic, scarcely conscious state. Mrs. Ormonde had preferred not to leave her the evening before, and had explained by telegram her failure to keep her appointment with Mrs. Emerson. To-night she visited her friends by Regent's Park. On looking in at the eating-house before going to her hotel for the night, she found the patient feverish and excited.
'She has been asking for you ever since you went away,' whispered the nurse.
Thyrza inquired anxiously, as if the thought were newly come to her:
'How did you know where I was, Mrs. Ormonde?'
'Mrs. Gandle found my name and address in your pocket, and wrote to me.'
'In my pocket? Why should she look in my pocket?'
'She was anxious to have a friend come to you, Thyrza.'
'Does any one else know? Lyddy doesn't - nor anybody?'
'Yes, it was in my pocket. I kept it from that time when I went to - to - oh, I can't remember!'
'To Eastbourne, dear.'
'Yes - Eastbourne!'
The only way of quieting her was for Mrs. Ormonde to sit holding her hand. It was nearly dawn when the fit of fever was allayed and sleep came.
A week passed before it was possible to think of removing her from these miserable quarters to the other room which awaited her. Mrs. Ormonde's presence had doubtless been a great aid to the sufferer in her struggle with intermittent fever and mental pain. As Thyrza recovered her power of continuous thought, she showed less disposition to talk; the trouble which still hung above her seemed to impose silence. She was never quite still save when Mrs. Ormonde sat by her, but at those times she generally kept her face averted, closing her eyes if either of her nurses seemed to watch her. She asked no questions. Mrs. Gandle came up occasionally, and to her Thyrza spoke very gently and gratefully. She asked to see 'Lizabeth, and that damsel made an elaborate toilette for the ceremony of introduction to the transformed sickroom.
'I don't believe as she's a workin' girl at all,' 'Lizabeth remarked mysteriously to her mother, afterwards. 'She's Mrs. Ormind's daughter, as has runned away from her 'ome, an' that's the truth of it.'
'Don't be silly, 'Lizabeth! Why, there ain't no more likeness than in that there cabbage!'
'I don't care. That's what I think, an' think it I always shall, choose what!'
'You always was obstinit!'
'Dessay I was, an' it's good as some people is. It wouldn't do for us all to think the same way; it 'ud spoil our appetites.'
One day of the week Mrs. Ormonde spent at Eastbourne. During her absence from home no letter had come from Egremont; she expected daily to hear from Mrs. Mapper that he had called at The Chestnuts, but nothing was seen of him. She preferred to keep silence, though her anxiety was constant. Out of the disparaging rumours which had found ready credence in the circle of the Tyrrells, and the facts which she had under her own eyes, it was not difficult for her to construct a story whereby this catastrophe could be explained without attributing anything more than misfortune to either Egremont or Thyrza. Her suppositions came very near to the truth. A natural, inevitable, error was that she imagined a scene of mutual declaration between the two. She could only conjecture that in some way they had frequently met, with the result which, the characters of both being understood, might have been foreseen. Possibly Egremont had thrown aside every consideration and had asked Thyrza to abandon Grail for his sake; in that case, it might be that Thyrza had fled from what she regarded as dishonourable selfishness, unable to keep her promise to Grail, alike unable to find her own happiness at his expense.
This was supposing the best. But, as a woman who knew the world, she could not altogether deny approach to fears which, in speaking with Annabel, she would not glance at. It was unlike Egremont to pass through a crisis such as this without having recourse to her sympathy, which had so long been to him as that of a mother. Perhaps he could not speak to her.
In any case, the immediate future was full of difficulties. It was a simple matter to take Thyrza to the Emersons' lodgings and get her restored to health, but what must then become of her? The best hope was that even yet she might marry Grail. Between the latter and Egremont doubtless everything was at an end; all the better, if there remained a possibility of Thyrza's forgetting this trial and some day fulfilling her promise. But in the meantime - a period, perhaps, of years - what must be done? The sisters might of course live together as hitherto and earn their living in the accustomed way, but Mrs. Ormonde understood too well the dangers of an attempt to patch together old and new. There was no foreseeing the effect of her sufferings on Thyrza's character; in spite of idealisms, suffering more often does harm than good.
In fact, she must become acquainted with the truth of the case before she could reasonably advise or help. It had seemed wise as yet to keep the discovery of Thyrza a secret, even though by disclosing it she might have alleviated others' pain. When Lydia should at length be told, perhaps difficulties would in one way or another be lessened.
Mrs. Ormonde at length spoke to the invalid of the plan for removing her. Thyrza made no reply, but, when her friend went on to speak of the people in whose care she would be, averted her eyes as if in trouble. Mrs. Ormonde was silent for a while, then asked:
'Would you like your sister to come, when you are in the other house?'
Thyrza shook her head. She would have spoken, but instead sobbed.
'But she must be in dreadful trouble, Thyrza.'
'Will you write to her, please, Mrs. Ormonde? Don't tell her where I am, but say that I am well again. I can't see her yet - not till I have begun to work again. Do you think I can soon go and find work?'
'Do you wish, then, to live by yourself?' Mrs. Ormonde asked, hoping that the conversation might lead Thyrza to reveal her story.
'Yes, I must live by myself. I mustn't see any one for a long time. I can earn as much as I need. If I can't find anything else, Mrs. Gandle will let me stay with her.'
There was silence. Then she turned her face to Mrs. Ormonde, and, with drooping eyelids, asked in a low voice:
'Do you know why I left home, Mrs. Ormonde?'
'No, I don't, Thyrza,' the other replied gently. 'I have not seen any of your friends. I think very likely you are the only one that could tell me the truth.'
'Lyddy knows,' was spoken presently, after the shedding of a few quiet tears. 'I left a letter for her. Besides, she knew before - knew that --'
The voice faltered and ceased.
'Can you tell me what it was, Thyrza?'
'I didn't do anything wrong, Mrs. Ormonde. But I was going to be married - do you remember about Mr. Grail?'
'I couldn't marry him - I didn't love him.'
She turned her face upon the pillow. Mrs. Ormonde touched her with kind hand, and, when she saw that the girl could tell no more, tried to soothe her.
'I understand now, Thyrza. I know it must have been a great trouble that drove you to this. I will do nothing that you don't wish. But we must let Lyddy know that you are in safety. Suppose you write a letter and tell her that you have been ill, but that you are quite well again, and with friends. You needn't put any address on it, and you had better not mention my name. It will be enough for the present to relieve her mind.'
'Yes, I'll do that, Mrs. Ormonde, if I can write.'
'You will be able to, very soon. It would frighten Lyddy, if the letter came to her written in a strange hand.'
Mrs. Ormonde made up her mind not to let it be known that she was in communication with Thyrza. Much was still dubious, but clearly it would be the wise course to avoid the possibility of Egremont's discovering Thyrza's place of abode. For the sake of the long future, a little more must be borne in the present. She had more than Thyrza's interests to keep in mind. Egremont's happiness was also at stake, and that, after all, was the first concern with her. By prudent management, perhaps the lives of both could be saved from this seeming wreck, and sped upon their several ways - ways surely very diverse.
But Thyrza was troubled with desire to ask something. When tears had heightened the relief of having told as much as she might, she asked timidly:
'Do you know if Mr. Grail has gone to the library - Mr. Egremont's library?'
'I have not heard. Could he go after this happening, Thyrza?'
'Yes,' she replied eagerly, 'he would go just the same. Why shouldn't he? It wouldn't prevent that, just because I didn't marry him. He would go and live there with Mrs. Grail, his mother. I said, when I wrote to Lyddy, that he'd go to the library just the same. There was no reason why he shouldn't, Mrs. Ormonde.'
She grew so agitated that Mrs. Ormonde, whilst asking herself what further light this threw on the matter, endeavoured to remove her trouble.
'Then no doubt he has gone, Thyrza. We shall hear all about it very soon.'
'You think he really has? We were to have been away for a week, and then have gone to live at the library. Haven't you heard anything from --'
'From whom, dear?'
'Anything from Mr. Egremont? He was beginning to put the books on the shelves - I was told about that. It was all ready for Gilbert to go and begin. Haven't you heard about it, Mrs. Ormonde?'
'I've been away from home, you see. No doubt there are letters for me.'
'I shall be so glad when I know, Mrs. Ormonde. You'll tell me, when you've heard, won't you, please? I've been thinking about it a long time - before I was ill, and again since I got my thoughts back. I want to be sure of that, more than anything. I'm sure he must have gone. Mr. Egremont was going away somewhere, and when he came back of course he would be told about - about me, and he wouldn't let that make any difference to Gilbert. And then I told Lyddy in the letter that I should come back some day. I'm quite sure it wouldn't keep him from going to the library.'
Mrs. Ormonde was herself very desirous of knowing what turn things had taken in Lambeth. She had no ready means of inquiry. But doubtless Mr. Newthorpe would have intelligence; it was only too certain that the affair was being discussed to its minutest details among the people who knew Egremont. She determined to see Mr. Newthorpe as soon as Thyrza was transported to the house by Regent's Park.
This took place on the following day, with care which could not have been exceeded had the invalid been a person as important and precious as even the late Miss Paula Tyrrell. Mrs. Gandle was adequately recompensed; her conviction that Mrs. Ormonde was a real lady suffered no shock under this most delicate of tests. Mrs. Ormonde bade farewell to Bank Street and Caledonian Road with a great hope that duty or necessity might never lead her thither again.
Thyrza still, of course, needed the nurse's attendance, and accommodation was found for that person under the same roof. When the party arrived, at mid-day, Mrs. Emerson was at home by appointment. She assisted in carrying the invalid upstairs, where a bright warm room was in readiness - as pleasant a change after the garret in Bank Street as any one could have desired.
Mrs. Tyrrell and Annabel were lunching with friends somewhere: Mr. Newthorpe had just taken a solitary meal in the room which he used for a study. Thither Mrs. Ormonde was conducted.
She noticed that he looked by no means so well as he had done before leaving Eastbourne. His greeting was nervous. He would not sit down, preferring to move restlessly from one position to another.
'I was about to write to you,' he said. 'What news do you bring?'
'I have come to you for news.'
'But you have seen Egremont?'
'Neither seen nor heard from him.'
'Then I suppose that settles the matter. I went to his place once, but could hear nothing of him, and since then I have just waited till the muddy water should strain itself clear again.'
'But I am in ignorance yet of the state of things in Lambeth,' said Mrs. Ormonde. 'Do you know anything about the library?'
'Dalmaine keeps our world supplied with the latest information,' Mr. Newthorpe replied, with cold sarcasm. 'The library scheme, I suppose, is at an end. The man Grail, we are told, pursues his old occupation.'
Mrs. Ormonde kept silence. The other continued, assuming a tone of cheerful impartiality:
'Really it is very instructive, an affair of this kind. One knows very well, theoretically, how average humanity fears and hates a nature superior to itself; but one has not often an opportunity of seeing it so well illustrated in practice. Tyrrell's attitude has especially amused me; his lungs begin to crow like chanticleer as often as the story comes up for discussion. He has a good deal of personal liking for Egremont, but to see 'the idealist' in the mud he finds altogether too delicious. His wife feels exactly in the same way, though she expresses her feeling differently. And Dalmaine - if I were an able-bodied man I rather think I should have kicked Dalmaine downstairs before this. 'Lo you, what comes of lofty priggishness!' - that is his text, and he enlarges on it in a manner worthy of himself. And the amazing thing is that it never occurs to these people to explain what has happened on any but the least charitable hypothesis.'
'What of Annabel?' Mrs. Ormonde asked.
'She seems to have no interest in the matter. So far so good, perhaps.' He added, with a smile, 'She is revenging herself for her years of retirement.'
'I supposed so. And really seems to be enjoying herself?'
'Astonishingly. I don't see much of her. She came in the other night to tell me that a Captain Somebody had proposed to her after six minutes of acquaintance, and laughed more gaily over it than I ever saw her. It's part of her education, of course; probably it was wise to postpone it no longer. I wait with curiosity to hear her opinion of this world at the end of July.'
Mrs. Ormonde mused. Mr. Newthorpe walked about a little, then asked:
'What do you prophesy of their future?
'Of whose future?'
'Egremont's and his wife.'
'You are premature. He is not married.'
'Oh, then you are not altogether without news?'
'I shall take you into my confidence. I find the responsibility a little too burdensome. The fact is, this girl, Thyrza Trent, is at present in my care.'
She gave a succinct account of the recent events, and explained them as far as her information allowed. The all-important point still remained obscure, but she showed her reasons for believing that something had passed between Egremont and Thyrza which could lead to but one result if they met again, now that the old objections were at an end.
'My desire is,' she pursued, 'to prevent that meeting. I have racked my brains over the matter, with no better result than Mrs. Grundy would at once have arrived at by noble intuition. It would he a grave mistake for Walter to marry this girl.'
'On general grounds, or from your special knowledge of her character?'
'Both. A third reason is - that I have long ago made up my mind whom he is to marry.'
'Yes,' said Mr. Newthorpe, gravely, the worry he no longer cared to conceal making him look old and feeble, 'yes, but that project has hardly become more hopeful during the last few weeks.'
'We have to think of a lifetime. I have by no means lost hope. I fear the atmosphere in which you are living has some effect upon you. The case stands thus: Walter has done nothing in the least dishonourable, but he has been carried away, as any imaginative young fellow would probably have been under the circumstances. The girl is very beautiful, wonderfully sweet and lovable; if a man ruined himself to obtain her I dare say it would be a long time before he repented.'
'At least six months.'
'No, I can't joke about Thyrza. I love her myself, and if I can by any means guide her life into a smooth channel it will make me very happy. But she must not marry Walter; that would assuredly not be for her happiness. The prospect before her was ideal, too good, of course, to be realised. We must devise some other future for her.'
'You think of taking her definitively from her former sphere?'
'There is no choice. She can't go and work for her living in the old way; I foresee too well what the end of that would be. She must either be raised or fall into the black gulfs - so beautifully is our society constructed. For the present she has to recover her health; the doctor tells me her constitution is very delicate. She must come to the sea-side as soon as she is well enough. I mustn't have her in my house, because Walter may come any day; but it will have to be Eastbourne, I fancy, as I don't know how to make plans for her elsewhere. And in the meantime we must think.'
'A question occurs to me. Is it quite certain that she won't of her own motion communicate with Egremont?'
'It is a question, of course. But I can't do more than take all reasonable precautions. I have a hope, though, that before long she will confide in me completely. The poor child knows nothing of this scandal; she even believes that Mr. Grail will take the librarianship as if nothing had happened. I can't with certainty foresee what effect it will have upon her when she hears the truth. Of course she must see her sister before very long. In the meantime, I have to tell her that things are going on quite smoothly; it is the only way to keep her calm.'
'What of the sister? Is she a person to be trusted?'
'I don't know her; but from the way in which Thyrza always speaks of her, I should think she is very trustworthy. She is some years older.'
After some further conversation, Mr. Newthorpe asked:
'What is Egremont doing, then, do you suppose?'
'I can form no idea.'
'Won't you write to him?'
'I think not. The poor fellow is, no doubt, going through his 'everlasting Nay,' as he used to say a few years ago; I fear it has come in earnest this time. He will come to me when I can really be of use to him. If I see him just now I shall have to act too much - I am bad at that.'
'Had I better try to find him?'
'Write, if you like, and see what answer you get.'
'A gloomy business for that poor fellow in Lambeth.'
'Yes, it's hard that one can give so little thought to him. If I speak the very truth, I still have a secret hope that she may marry him. But all in good time. What a blessed thing Time is! It makes everything easy.'
'It does. Most of all, when it destroys itself.'
He said it with a sad smile. Mrs. Ormonde turned again to the subject of Annabel. They decided that it was better to say nothing to her as yet.
In a fortnight Thyrza went to Eastbourne. She had written a letter to Lydia a few days after her establishment with Mrs. Emerson - a letter without any address at the head of it. Mrs. Emerson posted it in a remote district, that the office stamp might give no clue. Mrs. Ormonde provided her with lodgings at the side of Eastbourne farthest from The Chestnuts, in the house of a decent woman who did sewing for the Home. That her days might not become wearisome for lack of occupation, it was arranged that Thyrza should give her landlady occasional help with the needle.
Her main task, however, was to recover health and strength. The sea air helped her a little, but the heaviness of her heart kept her frame languid. At first she could walk only the shortest distances; as soon as she reached the sands, she would sit down wearily and fix her eyes seawards, gazing with what other thoughts than when that horizon met her vision for the first time! She had great need of uttering all her sorrow, but could not do so to Mrs. Ormonde; it seemed to her that it would be an unpardonable presumption to speak of Mr. Egremont as she thought of him, and perhaps she could not have brought herself to tell such a secret, whoever had been involved in it, to one who, kind as she was, remained in many senses a stranger. To Lyddy, and to her alone, she could have poured out all her heart. The longing for her sister was now ceaseless. She grieved that she had left London without seeing her. In the night she sometimes cried for hours because Lyddy was so far from her.
Mrs. Ormonde came to see her every other day. Though nothing had been said on the point, Thyrza understood that, for some reason, she was not expected to go to The Chestnuts. And, indeed, it was too far for her to walk in her present weak state.
But one evening she was drawn in that direction. Her landlady had gone to Hastings, and would be absent till the next day. It was not the day for Mrs. Ormonde's visit, and rain since morning had made it impossible to leave the house; the hours had dragged wearily. After tea the clouds broke, and soon there were warm rays from the westering sun. Thyrza was glad to leave her room. She walked into the main street of the town, for her solitude was become a pain, and she felt a desire to be among people, even though she could speak to no one. She came to the tree-shadowed road which, as she well remembered, led to Mrs. Ormonde's house. It tempted her on: she would like to look at the house. A friend lived there, and her heart ached to be near someone who cared for her. The prime need of her life was love, and love alone could restore her strength and give her courage to live.
It was nearer than she thought. Though troubled by the consciousness that she ought not to have come so far in this direction, and that perhaps her strength would be overtaxed before she could reach home again, she went still on and on, until, reaching the point where another road joined that by which she had come, she found The Chestnuts just before her. Beyond the house, the hill rose darkly and hid the setting sun. As she stood, a man issued from the adjoining road and walked straight towards the entrance of the garden. Her eyes followed him, and, though for a moment she did not believe their evidence, they told her that Egremont had passed so near to her that a whisper would have drawn his attention.
She was in the shade of thick trees; perhaps that circumstance, and the dark colour of her dress, accounted for his not observing her. He was walking quickly, too, and was looking fixedly at the house.
She followed. Had her voice been at her command, in that instant of recognition she would have called to him. But all her powers seemed to desert her, and she was rather borne onwards than advanced by any effort of her own.
He had passed through the gate when she reached the end of the garden wall. Losing him from sight, she understood what she was doing, and stayed her steps. A sense of having escaped a great danger made her tremble so that she feared she must fall to the ground if she could not find some place in which to rest. A few steps brought her into a piece of common ground, which lay in the rear of the garden, and here, at the foot of the wall, were some pieces of timber, the severed limbs of a tree that had fallen in the past winter. Here she could sit, leaning against the brickwork and letting her heart throb itself into quietness.
The wall was a low one, and above it in this place rose a screen of trellis, overgrown with creepers, making the rear of a spacious summer-house, which Mrs. Ormonde had had constructed for the use of children who had to be sheltered from too much either of sun or breeze when they were brought out of doors. Thyrza had not been resting for more than a minute or two, when a voice spoke from the other side of the wall, so plainly that she started, thinking she was observed and addressed. The voice was Mrs. Ormonde's.
'So at last,' she said, 'you have come.'
There was a brief silence, then the tones for which she waited once more fell upon her ear.
'You are alone to-night?' asked Egremont.
'Quite. I have been reading and thinking. Shall we go into the house?'
'If you will let me, I had rather sit with you here.'
Again there was silence. When Mrs. Ormonde spoke, it was in a lower voice, and such as one uses in reply to a look of affection.
'Why have you kept me in anxiety about you for so long, Walter?'
'I have had no mind to speak to any one, not even to you. I had nothing to tell you that would please you to hear. Often I have resolved to leave England for good, and give no account of myself to any one. It seemed unkind of you not to write. I waited till I knew you must have heard all that people had to say of me, and then every day I expected your letter. You could only be silent for one reason.'
'Why, then, have you come now?'
'Because I am ill and can be alone no longer.'
Thyrza scarcely breathed. It was as though all her senses had merged in one - that of hearing. Her eyes beheld nothing, and she was conscious of no more bodily pain. She listened for the very breathing of the two, who were so close to her that she might almost have touched them.
'How do you know that people are occupying themselves with your concerns at all?'
'From Jersey I went to France. When I reached London again, knowing nothing of what had happened whilst I was away, I met Dalmaine and his wife at Charing Cross station. They turned away, and refused to speak to me. When I got home, I found what it meant. Grail told me plainly what the general opinion was.'
'You saw Grail?'
'Of course. You think, naturally, that I should have hidden my face from him.'
'Don't be so harsh with me. You forget that I have still to learn everything.'
'Yes, I will tell you; I will explain; I will defend myself. I want your sympathy, and I will do my best to prove that I am not contemptible.'
'Hush! Be quiet for a moment. I have not written to you because I thought it needless to make conjectures, and ask questions, and give assurances, when you were sure, sooner or later, to come and tell me the whole story. I won't pretend that I have not had my moments of uneasiness. For instance, I wrote to you to Jersey, and the letter was returned to me; that came disagreeably, in connection with news I just then had from London; it was only human to suppose that for some reason you had talked of going to Jersey, and then had not gone there at all.'
'Grail followed me there, and, failing to find me, of course had the same thought.'
'And yet, you know, I could think more calmly than was possible for him. Now tell me all that you wish. What had happened, that this suspicion fell upon you?'
Thyrza heard a complete and truthful account of all that had passed between herself and Egremont, from the first meeting in the library to their parting near Lambeth Bridge.
Then Mrs. Ormonde asked:
'And where is she?'
'If only I knew: She has written to her sister, but without saying where she is, only that she has been ill, and is safe with people who are kind to her.'
'And what is your explanation of her disappearance?'
'I believe she could not marry Grail, loving another man.'
The silence that followed seemed very long to the listener. She dreaded lest they should end their conversation here. In that story of those meetings and partings, as told by Egremont, there had now and then been a word, a tone, that seemed to bear meaning yet incredible to her. By degrees she was realising all that her flight had entailed upon those she left, things undreamt of hitherto. But the last word of explanation was still to come. She did not dare to anticipate it, yet her life seemed to depend upon his saying something more.
'Have you made efforts to find her?' Mrs. Ormonde at length asked.
'Every possible effort.'
'With what purpose?'
'Need I tell you?
'You think it is your duty to offer her reparation for what she has suffered, because you were unwillingly the cause of it?'
'Yes, if that is the same thing as saying that I love her, and that I wish to make her my wife.'
'In a sense I suppose it is the same thing. You have been compelled to think so much of her, that pity and a desire to do your best for an unhappy girl have come to seem love. Remember that, by your own admission, you are ill; you cannot judge soundly of anything, even of your own feelings. You have done a good deal of harm, Walter, though unintentionally; do you wish to do yet more?'
'By binding yourself for life to a poor girl who can never by any possibility be a fit companion for you. I have seen such marriages; I have seen the beginning of them and the end. You, least of all men, should fall into such an error. Oh yes, I know; you are not brutal; you would never as much as speak an unkind word. No, but you would do what in this case would be worse. Brutally treated, Thyrza would die and be out of her misery; with you, she would drag through years of increasing wretchedness. Your thwarted life would be her long torture. Remember how often I have told you that you have much that is feminine in your character. You have little real energy; you are passive in great trials; it is easier to you to suffer than to act. Your idealism is often noble, but never heroic. You have talked to me of your natural nearness to people of the working class, and I firmly believe that you are further from them - for any such purpose as this in question - than many a man who counts kindred among the peerage. You have a great deal of spiritual pride, and it will increase as your mind matures. You think you are mature; tell me in ten years (if I am alive, old woman that I am!) how you look back on your present self. Walter Egremont, if ever you ask Thyrza to marry you, you will be acting with cruel selfishness - yes, selfishness, for all that you would pay bitterly for it in the end. You will be acting in a way utterly unworthy of a man who has studied and reflected.'
Thyrza heard Egremont laugh.
'To hear all this from you,' he said, 'surprises me very much.'
'You credit me with so little power of mind?'
'I thought you were the last to talk the common talk of the world that has outlived its generous instincts.'
'Pray believe that there is such a thing as outliving youthful passion, and yet retaining all the generous feeling that you speak of. I am not an ignoble schemer, and you know that I am not. Think over my arguments before you scorn me.'
'You think me so boyish and weak-minded that I cannot distinguish between pure love and base? One thing I left out of my narrative just now. I ought to have said that I was not wholly without blame in that intercourse. I strove with myself to seem nothing more than friendly to her, and yet I know that at times I spoke as no mere friend would have done, and simply because I could not help it. I loved Thyrza even then with more intensity of pure feeling than I had ever before known, and now I love her with a love which lasts a lifetime. You have no right to pronounce so confidently upon her fitness or unfitness to mate with me; your knowledge of her is very slight. I know her as a woman can only be known by the man who loves her. You cannot judge for me in this case; no one could judge for me. I shall act on my conviction; it is poor waste of life to do otherwise.'
A pause, whereof the seconds were to one ear beaten out in heart-throbs. Then Mrs. Ormonde said, very quietly:
'You have told Mr. Grail of this intention?'
'It has never occurred to you that the great wrongs this man has suffered might yet be repaired, perchance, if you were willing to let them be?'
'I have suffered on his account more than I can say. But it is certain that he and Thyrza would never marry after this.'
'I see no such certainty.'
'Then it merely comes to this, that he and I love the same woman, and must abide by her decision.'
'Gone. I can give no thought to it, for I am suffering a greater lose. Be human! Be honest! Would you not despise me if, loving her as I do, I came to you and puled about the overthrow of my schemes for founding a public library? Let it go! Let the people rust and rot in ignorance! I am a man of flesh and blood, and the one woman that the world contains is lost to me!'
Mrs. Ormonde seemed to think long over this passionate outcry. Egremont broke the silence.
'Once more, be human! She writes to her sister that she has been ill, but is now taken care of by friends. What friends? You are not ignorant of the world. How small a chance it is that she has fallen among people who will protect her! A girl with her beauty, and so simple, so trustful - friends, indeed! I am all but frenzied to think of the dangers that may surround her. She is more to me than my life's blood, and perhaps even now she is in terrible need of some honest man to protect her. And you can talk coldly about prudence, about what we shall think and say years hence! Well, I can talk no more. To-morrow morning I shall go back to London and go on searching for her, walking about the streets day and night, wearing my life away in longing for her. I have done with the past, and all those I used to call my friends. There is no room in my thought for anything but her memory and the desire to find her. Let us say good-bye, Mrs. Ormonde. If I am wrong and selfish as you say, then it is beyond my power to conquer the faults.'
The listener heard a deep sigh. Then:
'Walter, sit down; you are not going from me like that.'
'I can't stay; I can't talk as you wish to! I am so utterably miserable, and I came to you because I had always known you gentle and sympathetic.'
'I would never be anything else with you. But listen - have you entirely forgotten Annabel?'
'She is as little to me as if I had never seen her. You cannot say that I have any obligation to her. I asked her to be my wife, and she refused me; that was the end. There indeed, if you like, I was misled. I admired and respected her, and made myself believe that it was love. Again and again I doubted myself, even then. Since I first knew that I loved Thyrza, I have never doubted one moment. You, for all your subtle analysis of my character, do not know me. You think I must have a woman of fine intellect for my companion. You are wrong. What I need, I have seen in one face, and one only.'
Mrs. Ormonde spoke in a changed voice.
'On one point I can set your mind at rest, and I will, for I cannot bear to see you suffering. It is true that Thyrza is with friends. I know the people with whom she is living.'
'You know them? You know where Thyrza is?'
'I found her where she lay ill; the chance of her having my address in her possession led the people of the house to send for me. I took her away, and put her in good care.'
'And you could keep this from me?'
'You see why I did. Can I trust you not to abuse my kindness?'
'You mean --?'
'That it will be wholly dishonourable if you make any attempt to discover her after this. Do so, and we are friends no longer.'
'How can you exact any such promise as that?'
'Because I am within my right in exacting it. I make a bargain with you, Walter. For two years from now Thyrza remains under my guardianship. At the end of that time, you are at liberty to see her. I give you my word that neither directly nor indirectly will I seek to influence her affections as regards either you or Grail; I shall never speak to her on such subjects, nor will any one with whom I have authority. Is it agreed?'
Poor heart, again beating out the seconds!
'Will Grail know where she is living?'
'He will not. She must see her sister from time to time, but it shall be away from her ordinary dwelling, and Thyrza will understand the conditions. I shall offer her no explanation; it shall merely be my desire, and if she prove untrustworthy in this small matter, I think you will admit that no harm has been done - you and I will only have a new light on her character. It is very simple, provided that we two can trust each other, and that Thyrza is what you think her. I need not say, by-the-by, that she will not be living here; you can freely come to me as often as you please.'
Would he never reply?
'For two years? That is a long time.'
'Not at all, the circumstances considered. Are you afraid of submitting your love to the test?'
'You asked me to trust you implicitly. It is a great thing, you being my enemy to begin with.'
'Your enemy? Well, then, your enemy; and still I ask you to trust me. I have never yet betrayed man or woman, Walter.'
'Never; that I know well! Forgive me. On this day, this day of the month, two years hence, I may go to her?'
'On this day of the month, two years hence. Is it a bargain?'
'I agree. Thyrza could not be in safer keeping.'
He went on:
'What a load you have lifted from me! If that suspense had continued much longer, I don't know how I should have borne it. And you were with her in her illness? Tell me about her. Was she gravely ill? Tell me where you found her.'
'No; it is needless. I am a bad one to hear love confidences; I get impatient, and am apt to be satirical. I shall never talk to you of Thyrza.'
'But if she falls ill again, I must know.'
'I hope for better things. Tell me just one thing, before we change the subject. What is your opinion of her sister? What do you really know of her?'
'I know nothing save what I have gathered from Thyrza's talk, and from Grail's. I never saw her. But there can be little doubt that she is of sterling character.'
'Well, let it be. Now come in with me. I suppose you have had no thought for such a foolish ceremony as dinner?'
Their voices passed into silence. By this time it was dark, and the tall chestnuts beyond the house rustled in a cool breeze from the sea. Thyrza did not move for several minutes; when at length she endeavoured to rise, her numbed limbs would scarcely sustain her. She looked up and saw the yellow crescent of a young moon sailing in a sky of delicate pearl hue.
One glance at the upper windows of the house, and then, with strength which seemed to pass into her limbs from the sharp air, she set out for the cottage which was her present home.
Lydia held desperately to hope through the days and the nights. From all others Thyrza might hide away, but could she persist in cruelty to her sister? Surely in some way a message, if only a message, would be delivered; at least there would come a word to relieve this unendurable suspense. Every added day of silence was an added fear.
Unable to associate with acquaintances to whom Thyrza's name had become an unfailing source of vulgar gossip, she changed her place of work. Work had still to be done, be her heart ever so sore; the meals must be earned, though now they were eaten in solitude. And she worked harder than ever, for it was her dread that at any moment she might hear of Thyrza in distress or danger, and she must have money laid by for such an emergency. All means of inquiry were used, save that of going to the police-court and having the event made public through the newspapers. Neither Lydia nor Gilbert could bear to do that, even after they felt assured that the child was somewhere wandering alone.
Totty Nancarrow was an active ally in the search, though Lydia did not know it. Totty, as soon as that unfortunate game of cross-purposes with Luke Ackroyd had come to an end, experienced a revival of all her kindness for Thyrza. Privately she was of opinion that no faith whatever should be given to Egremont's self-defence. In concert with Ackroyd, she even planned an elaborate scheme for tracking Egremont in his goings hither and thither. They discovered that he was very seldom at his rooms in Great Russell Street, but their resources did not allow them to keep a watch upon him when he was away from town, which appeared to be very frequently the case. Circumstances of a darkly suggestive kind they accumulated in abundance, and for weeks constantly believed themselves on the point of discovering something. Bunce was taken into their confidence, but he, poor fellow, had occupation enough for his leisure at home, since Bessie was at Eastbourne. Little Nelly Bunce often fretted in vain for the attentions of 'Miss Nanco,' upon whom she had begun to feel a claim. 'Miss Nanco,' for the nonce a female detective, had little time for nursing.
And Gilbert Grail was once more going to his daily labour, not at the same factory, however, for he too could not mix with men who knew him. About a fortnight after the day on which he should have been married, he got a place at candle-works in Battersea. He could not leave the house in Walnut Tree Walk, for he, as persistently as Lydia, clung to the hope that Thyrza might reappear in her home some night. To go away would be to say good-bye for ever to that dream which had so glorified a few months of his life, and in spite of all he could not do that.
In comparison with his own, the suffering of others seemed trifling. When his mother went about in silence, bending more than she had done, all interest in the things of life and in her studies of Swedenborg at an end, he thought that much of it was due to her wish to show sympathy with him. When Lydia sat through an hour with her face hidden in her hands, he knew that the day had been very dark and weary with her, but said in himself that a sister's love was little compared with such as his. He would not reason on what had happened, save when to do so with Lydia brought him comfort; alone, he brooded over his hope. It was the only way to save himself from madness.
On the day after seeing Egremont he received a long letter from him. Egremont wrote from his heart, and with a force of sincerity which must have swept away any doubts, had such still lingered with the reader. The inevitable antagonism of the personal interview was a pain in his memory; if the intercourse of friendship was for ever at an end for them, he could not bear to part in this way, with hesitating words, with doubts and reticences. 'In your bitter misery,' he said, 'you may accuse me of affecting sympathy which I do not feel, and may scorn my expressions of grief as a cheap way of saving my self-respect. I will not compare my suffering with yours, but none the less it is intense. This is the first great sorrow of my life, and I do not think a keener one will ever befall me. Keep this letter by you; do not be content to read it once and throw it aside, for I have spoken to you out of my deepest feeling, and in time you will do me more justice than you can now.' And further on: 'As to that which has parted us, there must be no ambiguity, no pretence of superhuman generosity. I should lie if I said that I do not wish to find Thyrza for my own sake. If I find her, I shall ask her to be my wife. I wanted to say this when we spoke together, but could not; neither was I calm enough to express this rightly, nor you rightly to hear it.'
Gilbert allowed a day or two to go by, then made answer. He wrote briefly, but enough to show Egremont that the man's natural nobility could triumph over his natural resentment. It was a moving letter, its pathos lying in the fact that its writer shunned all attempt to be pathetic. 'Now that I know the truth,' he said, 'I can only ask your pardon for the thoughts I had of you; you have not wronged me, and I can have no ill-feeling against you. If Thyrza is ever your wife, I hope your happiness may be hers. As for the other things, do not reproach yourself. You wished to befriend me, and I think I was not unworthy of it. Few things in life turn out as we desire; to have done one's best with a good intention is much to look back upon - very few have more.'
Gilbert did not show this letter to Lydia, nor had he told her of what he had learnt in the conversation with Egremont. The fear would have seemed more intolerable if he had uttered it. But the hope which supported him was proof against even such a danger as this. To his mind there was something unnatural in a union between Egremont and Thyrza; try as be would, he could not realise it as having come to pass. The two were parted by so vast a social distinction, and, let Nature say what it will, the artificialities of life are wont to prevail. He could imagine an unpermitted bond between them, with the necessary end in Thyrza's sacrifice to the world's injustice; but their marriage appeared to him among the things so unlikely as to be in practice impossible. Of course the wish was father to the thought. But he reasoned upon the hope which would not abandon him. Thyrza had again and again proved the extreme sensitiveness of her nature; she could not bear to inflict pain. He remembered how she had once come back after saying good-night, because it seemed to her that she had spoken with insufficient kindness. The instance was typical. And now, though tempted by every motive that can tempt a woman, she had abandoned herself to unimagined trials rather than seek her own welfare at another's expense. To fulfil her promise had been beyond her power, but, if there must be suffering, she would share it. And now, in that wretched exile, he knew that self-pity could not absorb her. She would think of him constantly, and of such thought would come compassion and repentance. Those feelings might bring her back. If only she came back, it was enough. She could not undo what she had done, but neither could she forbid him to live with eyes on the future.
Reasoning so, he did his daily work and lived waiting.
Then came the day which put a term to the mere blank of desolation, and excited new hopes, new fears. Thyrza's letter arrived. It was delivered in the afternoon, and Lydia found it pushed under her door when she returned from work. She listened for Gilbert's coming home, then ran down to the sitting-room, and, without speaking, put the letter into his hand. Mrs. Grail was present.
'I knew it had come,' she said, in her low voice, which of late had begun to quaver with the feebleness of age. 'Mrs. Jarmey brought it here to show me, because she guessed who it was from.'
Gilbert said very few words, and when he returned the letter, Lydia went upstairs with it, to nurse the treasure in solitude. It lay on her lap, and again and again she read it through. Every word she probed for meanings, every stroke of the pen she dwelt on as possibly revealing something. 'I have been poorly, dear, but I am quite well again now.' That sentence was the one her eye always turned to. The writing was not quite the same as Thyrza's used to be; it showed weakness, she thought. She had foreseen this, that Thyrza would fall ill; in fear of that she had deprived herself of all save the barest necessaries, that she might save a little money. But strangers had tended her sister, and with her gladness at receiving news mingled jealousy of the hands that had been preferred to her own. Only now the bitterness of separation seemed to be tasted to the full.
At half-past nine she went downstairs again, knowing that she would find Gilbert alone. He was sitting unoccupied, as always now in the evenings, for his books gathered dust on the unregarded shelves. Seeing that she had the letter with her, he held out his hand for it in silence.
'There's one thing I'm afraid of,' Lydia began, when she had glanced at him once or twice. 'Do you think it's friends of his that she's with?'
He shook his head.
'He would have told me if he'd found her.'
'Are you quite sure?'
'Yes, I am sure. He wouldn't have said where she was, very likely, but he'd tell us that she was found.'
Gilbert had reason to think of Lydia as a great power on his side. The girl was now implacable against Egremont. She had ceased to utter her thoughts about him, since she knew that they pained her friend, but in her heart she kept a determined enmity. The fact of Thyrza's love in no way influenced her: her imagination was not strong enough to enable her to put herself in Thyrza's place and see Egremont as her sister saw him. With the narrowness of view which is common enough in good and warm-hearted women, she could only regard him as the disturber of happiness, the ruin of Thyrza's prospects. Lydia was not ambitious; she had never been enthusiastic about Gilbert's promotion to the librarianship, and doubtless it would have pleased her just as well for Thyrza to marry Grail if the latter had had no thought of quitting his familiar work. Consequently it was no difficulty to her to leave altogether out of sight Egremont's purposed benefits to Gilbert. She no longer believed that he was innocent of designs in his intercourse with Thyrza. This change was a natural enough consequence of Lydia's character, just as it had been perfectly natural for her to think and speak as she had done under the first shock of her sister's flight. Since then she had suffered terribly, and the suffering turned her against him who was the plain cause of it.
'What is the post-mark on the envelope?' Gilbert asked, Lydia continuing to brood over her jealousies and dreads.
The stamp was 'Charing Cross.' Small help derivable from that.
'She doesn't even say whether she'll write again,' Lydia murmured.
Gilbert said presently: 'I shall write to Mr. Egremont, and tell him that we have heard.'
'Oh no!' Lydia protested, indignantly. 'Why should you tell him? You mustn't do that, Gilbert; I don't want him to know.'
'I promised him, Lyddy. Of course I shouldn't tell him where she was, if we knew, but I promised to let him hear if we had any news.'
'Then I don't see why you promised such a thing. It doesn't concern him.'
Gilbert was troubled by this persistence. Lydia spoke with earnest disapproval. He could not do as he wished in defiance of her, yet he must certainly keep his promise to Egremont.
'You must remember,' he said gently, 'that he has reason to be anxious, as well as we.'
'What have we to do with that?' she replied, stubbornly. 'He has no right to think anything about her.'
'I mean, Lyddy, that he is troubled because of our trouble. All I want to do is to tell him that a letter has come from Thyrza, without address, and that she says she has found friends. Won't you consent to that?'
After a short silence, Lydia replied:
'I won't say any more, Gilbert. As you like.'
'No, that's not enough. I must have your full agreement. It's either right or wrong to do it, and you must make up your mind clearly.'
'I shouldn't wonder if he knows,' she said briefly.
'He doesn't know. I shall not distrust him again. He would have told me.'
'Then you had better write.'
'You see that I ought to?'
'Yes, as you promised. But I can't see why you did.'
This form of consent had to suffice, feminine as it was. But Gilbert knew Lydia well by this time, and no trifling fault could touch his deep affection and respect for her.
She was very lonely in these days, Lydia. Of her own sex, she had now no friend, unless it were poor old Mrs. Grail. By changing her place of employment, she had lost even the satisfaction of being among familiar faces, and her new work-mates thought her dull. The jokes and gossip of each morning were things of the past; she plied her needle every moment of the working day, her thoughts fixed on one unchanging subject. Yes, for she could not really think even of Ackroyd; he was always, it is true, a presence in her mind, but there was no more pondering about him. Every stitch at the lining of a hat meant a fraction of a coin, and each day's result was to have earned something towards the money saved for Thyrza's assistance.
With Mary Bower she spoke no longer, not even formal words. That insult on the miserable night had been a blow Mary could not soon forgive, for it came just at the moment when, having heard her parents' talk about Thyrza, she was sincerely anxious to reunite herself to her former friend and be what comfort to her she might. So now, whenever Lydia went to see Mr. Boddy, she gave a private signal at the side door, and the old man descended to admit her. Then, Totty Nancarrow. Strangely, Lydia could now have been almost friends with Totty; she did not know why. She met her by chance occasionally, and nodded, or at most spoke a brief greeting, yet each time she would have liked to stop and talk a little. Totty had been Thyrza's close friend; that formerly had been a source of jealous feeling, now it seemed to have become an attraction. Totty gave looks that were not unkind, but did not make advances; she was a little ashamed of the way she had behaved when Lydia came to her for help.
Lydia did not think it necessary to tell Gilbert that she too wanted to let someone know that there was news from Thyrza. After leaving the parlour, she ran out to a little shop in Kennington Road and purchased a sheet of note-paper and an envelope. Writing a letter was by no means a simple thing to Lyddy; it was after midnight before she had schemed the sentences - or rather, the one long hyper-Attic sentence - in which she should convey her intelligence to Ackroyd. Several things were to be considered in this composition. First, it must be as brief as possible; then, it must be very formal in its mode of address. Both these necessities came of the consideration that the letter would of course be shown to Totty Nancarrow, and Totty must have no cause of complaint. 'Dear Mr. Ackroyd' - that was written, but might it stand? It meant so much, so much. But how else to begin? Did not everybody begin letters in that way? She really could not say 'Dear Sir.' Then - for the letter must be finished, the hour was getting so late - 'Yours truly, Lydia Trent.' Surely that was commonplace enough. Yes, but to say 'yours;' that too meant so much. Was she not indeed his? And might not Totty suspect something in that 'yours?' You see that Lyddy was made a very philosopher by love; she had acquired all at once the power of seeing through the outward show of things, of perceiving what really lies below our conventional forms. Well, the letter had to stand; she had no second sheet of note-paper, and she had no more time, for the weary eyes and hands must get their rest for to-morrow's toil. She closed the envelope and addressed it; then, the ink being dry, she put the written name just for an instant to her lips. Totty could not divine that, and it was not so great a wrong. Perhaps Lydia would not have done it, but that the great burden upon her was for the moment lightened, and she longed to tell someone how thankful she was.
Would he reply by letter? Or would he make an opportunity of seeing her? Since the forming of that sudden intimacy under the pressure of misery, he and she had not seen each other often. They always spoke if they met, and Lydia was very grateful to him for the invariable kindness of his voice and his look, but of course it was not to be expected, not to be desired, that they should sustain the habit of conversing together as close friends. Ackroyd had evidently remembered that it was unwise; perhaps he had reported the matter to Totty, with the result that Totty had pronounced a quiet opinion, which it was only becoming in him to respect.
He wrote back; the letter came as speedily as could have been expected. 'Dear Miss Trent,' and 'Yours truly' - even as she had written. How can one write such words and mean nothing by them? But he said, 'Believe me, yours truly;' ah, she would never have ventured upon that! To be sure, it meant nothing, nothing; but she liked that 'Believe me.' He said he was very glad indeed that Thyrza had written, and he hoped earnestly that more satisfactory news would come before long. Very short. Lydia put away the note with that she had received from the same writer one sad morning in the work-room. How long ago that seemed!
More than a month of summer went by, and Lydia waited still for another word from her sister. After each day's disappointment, she closed her eyes saying, 'It will come to-morrow.' During the hours she spent at home the only event that interested her was the passing of the postman. She watched constantly from the window at the times when letters were delivered, and if, a rare chance, the man in uniform stopped at the door below, she sprang to the top of the stairs and hung there breathless, to see if someone would come up. No, the letter was never for her. On coming home from work she always threw open her door eagerly, for perhaps she would see the white envelope lying on the floor again. The defeat of hope always made the whole room seem barren and cold. Sunday was of all days in the week the longest and gloomiest; on that day there was no postman.
But at length came the evening when, looking down by mere dull habit as she opened her room door, behold the white envelope lay there. She could not believe that at last it was really in her hand. As she took the letter out, there fell from it a light slip of paper; with surprise she saw that it was a post-office order. This time a full address stood at the head of the page.
'Eastbourne!' she uttered. 'Then she is with Mrs. Ormonde, and Mrs. Ormonde is his friend.'
Hastily her eyes sought the sense of what was written. Thyrza said that she was well, but could not live longer without seeing her sister. Lydia was to come by as early a train as possible on the following morning; money was enclosed to provide for her expenses. No news could be sent, but in a few hours they would talk to each other. Finally, the address was to be kept a secret, to be kept even from Gilbert; she depended upon Lydia to obey her in this. A postscript added: 'You will easily find the house. I would come to the station and meet every train, but I couldn't bear to see you there first.'
Lydia had deep misgivings, but they did not occupy her mind for long. She was going to see Thyrza; that, as she realised it, rang a peal of joy in her ears and made her forget all else. But the money she would not use; she had enough to pay her fare, and in any case she would somehow have obtained it rather than spend this, which came she knew not from whom. It might be that Thyrza had earned it, but perhaps it was given to her by an enemy - under this name Lydia had come to think of Egremont.
She told Gilbert in private. The concealment from him of Thyrza's address he seemed to accept as something quite natural. He drew a sigh of relief, and, as Lydia left him, gave her a look whose meaning was not hard to understand.
The new day did come at last, and at last Lydia was in the train; she had remembered that by which Thyrza went with Bessie, and she took the same. A strange feeling she had as, instead of going to the work-room, she set off through the sunshine to the railway station; a holiday feeling, had she known what holiday meant. That she was going for the first time to the sea-side was nothing; her anticipation was only of Thyrza's look and Thyrza's first kiss. Why were all the other people who went by the same train so joyous and so full of hope? Were they too going to meet someone very dear to them?
She had copied the address on to a piece of paper, which she kept inside her glove; impossible that she should forget, but even impossibilities must be provided for. When she descended at Eastbourne, she was so agitated and so perplexed by the novelty of the experience that with difficulty she found her way into the street. She hurried on a little way, then remembered that the first thing was to ask a direction. On inquiring from a woman who stood in a shop-door, she at once had her course clearly indicated. Forwards then, as quickly as she could walk. How astonishingly clean the streets were! What great green trees grew everywhere! How bright and hot was the sunshine! - Yes, this turn; but to make quite sure she would ask again. A policeman, in an unfamiliar uniform, reassured her. Now a turn to the right - and of a sudden everything ceased; there seemed to be nothing but blue sky before her. Ah, that was the sea, then; its breath came with wondrous sweetness on her heated face. But what was the sea to her! Along here to the left again. She must be very near now. Again she asked, and in so uncertain a voice that she had to repeat her question before it was understood. Number so-and-so; why, it was just over yonder; the cottage that seemed to be built of some glistening white stone. And so she stood at the door.
A child opened, and, without questioning, laughed and said, 'Come in, please.' She found herself at once in a comfortable kitchen. The child pointed to an inner door, which, in the same moment, softly opened.
So it had come at last. Once again they were heart to heart, Lydia cried as though something dreadful had befallen her; Thyrza sobbed once or twice, but she had shed so many tears for misery that none would come at the bidding of joy.
They were in a little room which looked through a diamond-paned lattice upon the flat beach which lies at this side of Eastbourne. In front was a black, tar-smeared house of wood for the keeping of fishers' nets, and fishing boats lay about it. When Lydia's emotion had spent itself, Thyrza drew her to the window, threw back the lattice, and said 'Look!'
'I can't look at anything but you, dearest,' was the answer.
'But let us look together, just for a minute, then we shall come fresh again to each other's faces. The sea, Lyddy! I love it; it seems to me the best friend I ever had.'
'You're very pale still, darling. You've been ill, and you wouldn't send for me. How cruel that was of you, Thyrza! You might have got so bad you couldn't send; you might have died before I could know anything. Dear, you don't love me as I love you. I couldn't have given you that pain, no, not for any one, not for any one in the world. Oh, why didn't you let me go away with you? I'd have gone anywhere; I'd have done anything you asked me. Are you sure you're well again? Do you feel strong? - What is it?'
Thyrza had let herself sink upon a chair, and her face, which had indeed been strangely colourless, was for a moment touched with pain. But she laughed.
'It's only with exciting myself so, Lyddy. I haven't stood or sat still a minute since I got up. Oh, I'm as well as ever I was, better than ever I was in my life. Don't I look happy? I only wanted you; that was the only thing. I never felt so well and happy.'
Somebody knocked at the door.
'That's something for you to eat after your journey,' said Thyrza. 'It's too early for dinner yet, but you must have just a mouthful.'
She went out and came back with a tray, on which was milk and cake.
Lydia shook her head.
'I can't eat, Thyrza. I want you to tell me everything.'
'I shan't tell you anything at all till you've had a glass of milk. Let me take your things off. You're going to stay with me to-night, you know. Sit still, and let me take them off. Dear, good old Lyddy! Oh, will you do my hair for me tomorrow morning? Think of doing my hair again! Poor old Lyddy, you always did cry when you were glad, and never for anything else. Shall I sit on your lap, like I used to do after I'd been naughty, years and years ago? Oh, years and years; you don't know how old I am, Lyddy. You don't think you're still older than me, do you? No, that's all altered. Mrs. Guest here asked me how old I was the other day, and I wouldn't tell her, because the truth wasn't true. I was so ill, Lyddy dear; I did think I should die, and I should have wished to, but for you. I couldn't send for you: I was ashamed to. I'd behaved too bad to you and to everybody. But people were kind, much kinder than they'd need have been. Some day I'll go and see Mrs. Gandle and tell her I haven't forgotten her kindness. You shall go with me, Lyddy. But no, no; you wouldn't like. We'll forget all about that,'
'Where was that, Thyrza?'
'A place where I got work. Do you know where the Caledonian Road is?'
Lydia tightened her embrace, as if shame and hardship still threatened her dear one and she would guard her from them.
'But how did you get better? What happened then?'
'When I was very bad, Mrs. Gandle one night looked in my pocket to see if I'd anything about me to show where I belonged. And she found that bit of paper with Mrs. Ormonde's name and address. But wait, Lyddy; I've something to say. Did you do as I asked, about not telling any one where I was?'
'I didn't tell any one, Thyrza. Nobody knew where I was going. I mean, of course I told Gilbert that I was going to you, but not where you were.'
Thyrza, after a short pause, asked very quietly:
'How is Gilbert, Lyddy?'
'He seems pretty well, dear.'
'Has he - has he felt it very hard?'
She kept her eyes veiled, and pressed her head closer to Lydia's shoulder.
'He's had a great deal to go through, dear.'
The touch of severity in Lydia's voice came of her thoughts turning to Egremont. But Thyrza felt herself judged and rebuked; she trembled.
'What is he doing?' she asked, in a voice barely audible.
'He goes to work, as usual. It's a new place.'
'Poor Gilbert Oh, I'm sorry for him! He never deserved this of me. Lyddy,' she added in a whisper, 'it makes you so cruel to other people when you love anyone.'
Lydia found no answer. She was gazing through the open window, but saw nothing of sea or sky. She, then, did not know what it was to love? Well, love is of many kinds.
'But I was going to say something, Lyddy,' Thyrza pursued, when a kiss upon her hair assured her that from one at all events there was no need to ask forgiveness. 'It's Mrs. Ormonde that has done everything for me, and she doesn't want anybody to know - nobody except you. She's very kind, but - she's a little hard in some things, and she thinks - I can't quite explain it all. Will you promise not to tell any one when you go back?'
'But are you going to stay here, Thyrza?'
'No, dear; I'm going to London. Mrs. Ormonde is going to send me to some friends of hers. I'm not allowed to tell you where it is, and you won't be able to come and see me there; but we shall see each other somewhere sometimes. You'll keep it secret?'
'Then we're going to be parted always?' Lydia asked, slowly.
'No, no; not always, dear sister. Just for a time; oh, not long. I told Mrs. Ormonde that I knew you'd do as I asked.'
'Thyrza,' said the other gravely, 'I broke the other promise. I showed Gilbert the letter you left for me, and I told him all you'd told me.'
'Yes,' Thyrza uttered mechanically.
'It couldn't be helped. People had begun to talk, and Gilbert had heard about - about the library, you know. Mrs. Bower got to know somehow.'
'Lyddy, I told you all the truth; I told you every word of the truth!'
'I'm sure you did, Thyrza - all you knew.'
'Everything! What did people say about me? No, I don't want to hear; don't tell me. That's all over now. And you couldn't help telling Gilbert; I understand how it was. But will you promise me this other thing, Lyddy?'
She raised herself, and looked solemnly into her sister's face.
'It'll mean more to me than you think, if you refuse, or if you break your promise. I don't think you would do me harm, Lyddy?'
The answer was long in coming. At last Lydia made inquiry:
'Why does Mrs. Ormonde want to hide you?'
Thyrza grew agitated.
'She means it for my good. She believes she's doing the best. She's been kind to me, and I can't say a word against her. I think I ought to do as she wants. She seems to like me, only - I can't tell you how it is, Lyddy; I can't tell any one; no, not even you!'
'Don't worry yourself so, dearest.'
'Lyddy, you might promise me!' Thyrza went on, shaken with emotion, one would have said, with fear. 'I've done wrong to you and to Gilbert, but do try and forgive me. Why are you so quiet? Haven't you love enough for me to do just this?'
She stood up, flushed and with wild eyes.
'Be quiet, Thyrza dearest!' pleaded her sister.
'Then answer me, Lyddy I Promise me!'
'I want to know one thing first. Have you seen Mr. Egremont?'
'I haven't spoken to him since that night when I said good-bye to him by the river. Can't you believe me?'
'I don't think you'd tell me an untruth.'
'If I'd spoken to him, Lyddy, I'd tell you at once; I would! I'd tell you everything!'
'I must say what I mean, Thyrza; it's no good doing anything else. Tell me this: does Mrs. Ormonde want you to marry him?'
Thyrza laughed strangely. Then she exclaimed:
'She doesn't! She wouldn't hear of such a thing, not for the world! She wants to be kind to me in her own way, but not that; not that! How you distrust me! Are you against me, then? What are you thinking about? I hoped you would be kind to me in everything. You don't look like my Lyddy now.'
'It's because I don't understand you,' said the other, in a subdued voice, her eyes on the ground. 'You're not open with me, Thyrza. If it's true that Mrs. Ormonde thinks in that way, why do you --'
She broke off.
'I can't talk about it! It's very hard to bear. We shall never be what we were to each other, Thyrza. Something's come between us, and it always will be between us. You must take your own way, dear. Yes, I promise, and there's an end of it.'
Thyrza sprang forward.
'What is it you're afraid of?' she pleaded. 'Why do you speak like this? What are you thinking?'
'I think that Mr. Egremont 'll know where you are.'
'Lyddy, he won't know! I give you my solemn word he won't know.'
'Do you write to him? Perhaps you meant that, when you said you hadn't spoken to him?'
'I meant what I said, that I've neither written nor spoken, nor him to me. He won't know where I am; I shall have nothing to do with him in any way. But of course if you refuse to believe me, what's the use of saying it!'
There was a strange intonation in Thyrza's voice as she added these words. She looked and spoke with a certain pride, which Lydia had never before remarked in her. Lydia mused a little, then said:
'I don't doubt the truth of your words, Thyrza. I promise not to tell any one anything about you, and I'll keep my promise. But can't you tell me what you're going to do?'
'I don't really know myself. Mrs. Ormonde took me to her house the day before yesterday, and there was a lady there that I had to sing to. I think she wanted to see what sort of a voice I had. She played a sound on the piano, and asked me to sing the same, if I could. She seemed satisfied, I thought, though she didn't say anything. Then Mrs. Ormonde brought me back in her carriage, but she didn't say anything about the singing. She's very strange in some things, you know.'
Lydia asked presently:
'Then was it Mrs. Ormonde gave you this money?'
And she took the post-office order from her pocket.
'What! you didn't use it?'
'No; I had enough of my own. Please give it back.'
'Oh, Lyddy, how proud you are! You never would take any help from anybody, and yet you went on so about grandad when he made bother. Oh, how is poor grandad?'
'The same as usual, dear.'
'And you go to work every day just the same? My poor Lyddy!'
The contention was over, and the tenderness came back.
'Speak something for me to Gilbert, Lyddy! Say I - what can I say? I do feel for him; I can never forget his goodness as long as I live. Tell him to forget all about me, How wrong I was ever to say that I loved him!'
Then again, in a whisper:
'What about Mr. Ackroyd, dearest?'
'The same. They're not married yet. I dare say they will be soon.'
They spent long hours together by the ebb and flow of the tide. Lydia almost forgot her troubles now and then. As for Thyrza, she seemed to drink ecstasy from the live air.
'It's a good friend to me,' she said several times, looking out upon the grey old deep. 'It's made me well again, Lyddy. I shall always love the sound of it, and the salt taste on my lips!'
'We are going first of all to the Pilkingtons', in Warwickshire,' said Annabel, talking with Mrs. Ormonde at the latter's hotel in the last week of July. 'Mr. Lanyard - the poet, you know - will be there; I am curious to see him. Father remembers him a 'scrubby starveling' - to use his phrase - a reviewer of novels for some literary paper. He has just married Lady Emily Quell - you heard of it? How paltry it is for people to laugh and sneer whenever a poor man marries a rich woman. I know nothing of him except from his poetry, but that convinces me that he is above sordid motives.'
'Then you do still retain some of your idealism, Bell?'
'All that I ever had, I hope. Why? You have feared for me?'
'Yes, I know,' Annabel answered, rather absently, letting her eyes stray. 'Never mind. You had something particular to say to me, Mrs. Ormonde.'
'Yes, I have a good-bye for you from an old acquaintance.'
Annabel's complexion had not borne the season as well as those of women whose whole and sole preoccupation it is to combat Nature in the matter of their personal appearance. Her tint was, as they say, a little fatigued. Fatigued, too, were her eyes, which seemed ever looking for something lost; that gaze she had in sitting by Ullswater with 'Sesame and Lilies' on her lap would not be easily recovered. Her beauty was of rarer quality and infinitely more suggestive than on that day something more than a year ago; to the modern mind nothing is complete that has not an element of morbidity. At Mrs. Ormonde's words she turned with grave interest.
'Where, then, is he going?' she asked, just smiling.
'To a small manufacturing town in Pennsylvania. His firm has just opened works there, and he has it in view to prepare himself for superintending them.'
'You are serious?'
'Quite. I think it was chiefly my persuasion that decided him. I have no doubt that in a year or two he will thank me, though he is not very ardent about it at present.'
'But surely he - No, I think you are right.'
'I have not advised him to become an American,' Mrs. Ormonde continued, smiling, when Annabel abandoned an apparent intention of saying more. 'No doubt he will come to England now and then, and probably, with his disposition, he will some day make his home here again. I hardly expect to see him for some two years.'
'I hope it is right. I think it is.'
Annabel paused a little, then made an unforced transition to other matters. She rose to leave before long. Whilst her hand was in Mrs. Ormonde's, she asked:
'May I know anything more than father told me?'
She had said it with a little difficulty, but without confusion of face.
'What did your father tell you?'
'Only that she is in your care, and that you think her voice can be cultivated, so as to serve her.'
'Yes, I will tell you more than that, dear. He is absolutely without bond as regards her. They have never met since her flight from home, and, more, she has no suspicion that he ever took an interest in her save as Mr. Grail's future wife.'
'She does not know that?'
'She has no idea of it. They have never exchanged a more than friendly word. He believed, when absent from England, that she was already married, and of his movements since then she is wholly ignorant.'
She listened with frank surprise; her face showed nothing more than that.
'But,' she said, hesitatingly, 'I cannot quite understand. He holds himself quite without responsibility? He leaves England without troubling about her future?'
'Not at all. He knows I have her in my care. She being my ward, I have a perfect right to demand that the child's fate shall not be trifled with, that she shall be allowed to grow older and wiser before any one asks her to take an irrevocable step - say for the space of two years. Mr. Egremont grants my right, and I have never yet had real grounds for doubting his honour.'
'I never doubted it, even on seeming grounds,' said Annabel, quietly.
'You are justified, Bell. Well, as you asked me, I thought it better to tell you thus much. He leaves England morally as free as if he had never heard her name.'
'One more question. How do you know that she has no assurance of his - affection?'
'He has himself told me that there has been not a word of that between them. The only other possible source was her sister, who has seen her. I did not see Lydia before the interview, because it was repugnant to me to do so; their love for each other is something very sacred, and a stranger had no right to come between them before they met. But I subsequently saw Lydia in London. She soon spoke to me very freely, and I found that she almost hated me because she thought I was planning to marry her sister to Mr. Egremont. I also found out - I am old, you know, Bell, and can be very deceitful - that Lydia, no more than her sister, suspects serious feeling on his part. She scorned the suggestion of such a possibility. It is her greatest hope that Thyrza may yet marry Mr. Grail.'
'And what can you tell me of Thyrza herself?'
'She has been ill, but seems now in very fair health, The day she spent with Lydia evidently did her a vast amount of good. That natural affection is an invaluable resource to her, and, if I am not mistaken, it will be the means of recovering happiness for me. She is quiet, but not seriously depressed - sometimes she is even bright. The singing lessons have begun, and she enjoys them; I think a new interest has been given her.'
'Then I hope a very sad beautiful face will no longer haunt me.'
Thus did two ladies transact the most weighty part of their business after shaking hands for good-bye - an analogy to the proverbial postscript, perhaps.
The same evening there was a dinner-party at the Tyrrells'. Mr. Newthorpe had, as usual, kept to his own room. Annabel went thither to sit with him for a while after the visitors were gone.
He had a poem that he wished to read to her; there was generally some scrap of prose or verse waiting for her when she went into the study. To-night Annabel could not give the usual attention. Mr. Newthorpe noticed this, and, laying the book aside, made one or two inquiries about the company of the evening. She replied briefly, then, after hesitation, asked:
'Do you very much want to go to the Pilkingtons', father?'
He regarded her with amazement.
'I? Since when have I had a passionate desire to camp in strangers' houses and eat strange flesh?'
'Then you do not greatly care about it - even for the sake of meeting Mr. Lanyard?'
'Lanyard? Great Heavens! The fellow has done some fine things, but spiritual converse with him is quite enough for me.'
'Then will you please to discover all at once that you are really not so well as you thought, and that, after your season's dancing and theatre-going, you feel obliged to get hack either to Eastbourne or Ullswater as soon as possible?'
'The fact is, Bell, I haven't felt by any means up to the mark these last few days.'
'Dear father, don't say that! I am wrong to speak lightly of such things.'
'I only say it because you ask me to, sweet-and-twenty. In truth I feel very comfortable, but I shall be far more sure of remaining so at Eastbourne than at the Pilkingtons'.'
'Eastbourne, you think?'
'Nay, as you please, Bell.'
'Yes, Eastbourne again.' She came to her father and took his hands. 'I'm tired, tired, tired of it all, dear; tired and weary unutterably! If ever we come to London again, let us tell nobody, and take quiet rooms in some shabby quarter, and go to the National Gallery, and to the marbles at the Museum, and all places where we are sure of never meeting a soul who belongs to the fashionable world. If we go to a concert, we'll sit in the gallery, among people who come because they really want to hear music --'
'Eheu! The stairs are portentous, Bell!'
'Never mind the stairs! Nay then, we won't go to public concerts at all, but I will play for you and myself, beginning when we like, and leaving off when we like, and using imagination - thank goodness, we both have some! - to make up for the defects. We'll go back to our books - oh! you have never left them; but I, poor sinner that I am --! Give me my Dante, and let me feel him between my hands! Where is Virgil?
Is it quoted right? Is it apropos?'
'Savonarola's word of fate.'
'Then mine too! How have you been so patient with me? A London season - and I still have Homer to read! Still have Sophocles for an unknown land! My father, I have gone far, very far, astray, and you did not so much as rebuke me.'
'My dearest, it is infinitely better to hear you rebuke yourself. Nor that, either. A chapter in your education was lacking; now you can go on smoothly.'
'Now read the poem over again, father. I can hear it now.'
Paula came to the house next morning. She and Annabel had seen very little of each other throughout the season, but, on the last two or three occasions of their meeting, Paula had betrayed a sort of timid desire to speak with more intimacy than was her wont. Annabel was not eager in response, hut, in spite of that letter which you remember, she had always judged her cousin with much tolerance, and a suspicion that Paula Dalmaine was not quite so happy a person as Paula Tyrrell had been, inclined her to speak with gentleness. They were alone together this morning in the drawing-room.
'So you're going to the Pilkingtons',' Paula said, when she had fluttered about a good deal.
'No. We have changed our minds. We go back to Eastbourne.'
'Ah! How's that, Bell?'
'We are a little tired of society, and father needs quietness again. Where do you go?'
'To Scotland, with the Scalpers. Lord Glenroich is going down with us. He's promised to teach me to shoot.'
Paula spoke of these arrangements with less gusto than might have been expected of her. She was fidgety and absent. Suddenly she asked:
'What has become of Mr. Egremont, Bell?'
'He has either gone, or is just going, to America, to live there, I believe, for some time.'
'Oh, indeed! - with anybody, I wonder?'
'He has not told me anything of his affairs, Paula.'
'Then you have seen him?'
'No, I haven't.'
'Don't be cross with me, Bell. I don't mean anything. I only wanted to know something true about him; I can hear lies enough whenever I choose.'
It was pathetic enough, because, for once, evidently sincere. Annabel smiled and made no reply. Then, with abrupt change of subject, Paula remarked:
'I think I shall come and see you at Eastbourne, if you'll let me.'
'I shall be glad.'
'No, you won't exactly be glad, Bell - but, of course, I know you couldn't say you'll be sorry. Still, I shall come, for a day or two, all by myself.'
'Come, and heartily welcome, Paula.'
'Well now, that does sound a little different, I don't often hear people speak like that.'
She nodded a careless good-bye, and at once left the house. She went straight home. Mr. Dalmaine was absent at luncheon-time; Paula ate nothing and talked fretfully to the servant about the provision that was made for her - though she never took the least trouble to see that her domestic concerns went properly. She idled about the drawing-room till three o'clock. A visitor came; her instructions were: 'Not at home.' At half-past three she ordered a hansom to be summoned, instead of her own carriage, and, having dressed with nervous rapidity, she ran downstairs and entered the vehicle. 'Drive to the British Museum,' she spoke up to the cabman through the trap.
But just as the horse was starting, it stopped again. Looking about her in annoyance, she found that her husband had bidden the driver pull up, and that he was standing by the wheel.
'Where are you going?' he asked, smilingly.
'To see a friend. Why do you stop me when I'm in a hurry? Tell him to drive on at once.'
She was obeyed, and, as the vehicle rolled on, she leaned back, suffering a little from palpitation. It was a long drive to Great Russell Street, and once or twice she all but altered her direction to the man. However, she was on the pavement by the Museum gates at last. When the cab had driven away, she crossed the street. She went to the house where Egremont had his rooms.
'Yes, Mr. Egremont was at home.'
'Then please to give him this card, and ask if he is at liberty.'
She was guided up to the first floor; she entered a room, and found Egremont standing in the midst of packing-cases. He affected to be in no way surprised at the visit, and shook hands naturally.
'You find me in a state of disorder, Mrs. Dalmaine,' he said. 'Pray excuse it; I start on a long journey to-morrow morning.'
Paula murmured phrases. She was hot, and wished in her heart that she had not done this crazy thing; really she could not quite say why she had done it.
'So you're going to America again, Mr. Egremont?'
'I heard so. I knew you wouldn't come to say good-bye to me, so I came to you.'
She was looking about for signs of female occupation; none whatever were discoverable.
'You are kind.'
'I won't stay, of course. You are very busy --'
'I hope you will let me give you a cup of tea?'
'Oh no, thank you. It was only just to speak a word - and to ask you to forget some very bad behaviour of mine. You know what I mean, of course. I was ashamed of myself, but I couldn't help it. I'm so glad I came just in time to see you; I should have been awfully vexed if I - if I couldn't have asked you to forgive me.'
'I have nothing whatever to forgive, but I think it very kind of you to have come.'
'You'll come back again - some day?'
'Very likely, I think.'
'Then I'll say good-bye.'
He looked into her face, and saw how pretty and sweet it was, and felt sorry for her - he did not know why. Their hands held together a moment or two.
'There's no - no message I can deliver for you, Mr. Egremont? I'm to be trusted - I am, indeed.'
'I'm very sure you are, Miss Tyrrell - Oh, pardon me!'
'No, no! I shan't forgive you.' She was laughing, yet almost crying at the same time. 'You must ask me to do something for you, in return for that. How strange that did seem! It was like having been dead and coming to life again, wasn't it?'
'I have no message whatever for anybody, Mrs. Dalmaine; thank you very much.'
'Good-bye, then. No, no, don't come down. Good-bye!'
She drove back home.
She had been sitting for an hour in her boudoir, when Dalmaine came in. He smiled, but looked rather grim for all that. Seating himself opposite her, he asked:
'Paula, what was your business in Great Russell Street this afternoon?'
She trembled, but returned his gaze scornfully.
'So you followed me?'
'I followed you. It is not exactly usual, I believe, for young married ladies to visit men in their rooms; if I have misunderstood the social rules in this matter, you will of course correct me.'
Mr. Dalmaine was to the core a politician. He was fond of Paula in a way, but he had discovered since his marriage that she had a certain individuality very distinct from his own, and till this was crushed he could not be satisfied. It was his home policy, at present, to crush Paula's will. He practised upon her the faculties which he would have liked to use in terrorising a people. Since she had given up talking politics, her drawing-room had been full of people whom Dalmaine regarded with contempt - mere butterflies of the season. She had aggressively emphasised the difference between his social tastes and hers. He bore with it temporarily, till he could elaborate a plan of campaign. Now the plan had formed itself in most unhoped completeness, and he was happy.
'What did you want with that fellow?' he asked, coldly.
'Mr. Egremont is going to America, and I wanted to say good-bye to him. He was my friend long before I knew you.'
She rose, and would have gone; but he stopped her with a gentle hand.
'Paula, this is very unsatisfactory.'
'What do you want? What am I to do?'
'To sit down and listen. As I have such very grave grounds for distrusting you, I can only pursue one course. I must claim your entire obedience to certain commands I am now going to detail. Refusal will, of course, drive me to the most painful extremities.'
'What do you want?'
'To-morrow you were to give your last dinner-party. You will at once send a notice to all your guests that you are ill and cannot receive them.'
'Absurd! How can I do such a thing?'
'You will do it. We spoke of going to Scotland with the Scalpers. Instead of that, you accompany me to Manchester when Parliament rises, and you live with me there in retirement whilst I am occupied with my study of the factory questions which immediately interest me.'
Paula was silent.
'These are my commands. The alternative to obedience is - you know what. Pray let me know your decision.'
'Why do you behave to me in this way? What have I done to be treated like this?'
'Pray do not ask me. I wait for your answer.'
'I can only give in to you, and you're coward enough to take advantage of it.'
'You undertake to obey me?'
'I want to go to my room. Can I do so without asking?'
'You are mistress of my house, Paula, as long as you obey me in essential matters.'
Paula disappeared, and Mr. Dalmaine sat reflecting with much self-approbation on the firmness and suavity he had displayed.
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