Thyrza by George Gissing
Chapter X. Tempting Fortune
Thyrza continued to be far from well. The day-long darkness encouraged her natural tendency to sad dreaming. When alone, in Lydia's absence at the work-room, she sometimes had fits of weeping; it was a relief to shed tears. She could have given no explanation of the sufferings which found this outlet; her heart lay under a cold weight, that was all she knew.
Lydia pursued her course with the usual method and contentment, yet, in these days just before Christmas, with a perceptible falling off in the animation which was the note of her character. Perhaps she too was affected by the weather; perhaps she was anxious about Thyrza; one would have said, however, that she had some trouble distinct from these.
On Christmas Eve she ran round to Paradise Street, to make arrangements for the next day. Evidently it would not be wise for Thyrza to leave home; that being the ease, it was decided that Mr. Boddy should come and have tea with the girls in their own room. Lydia talked over these things with Mary in the kitchen below the shop, where odours of Christmas fare were already rife. The parlour was full of noisy people, amid whom Mr. Bower was holding weighty discourse; the friends had gone below for privacy.
'So I shall keep the coat till he comes, Lydia said. 'I know Thyrza would like to see his poor old face when he puts it on. And you might come round yourself, Mary, just for an hour.'
'I'll see if I can.'
'I suppose you'll have people at night?'
'I don't know, I'm sure. I'd much rather come and sit with you, but mother may want me.'
'Has Mr. Ackroyd been here lately?'
'I haven't seen him. I hope not.'
'Why do you say that, Mary?' asked Lydia impatiently.
'I only say what I think, dear.'
Lydia for once succeeded in choosing wiser silence. But that look which had no place upon her fair, open countenance came for a moment, a passing darkness which might be forecast of unhappy things.
At four o'clock on the following afternoon--this Christmas fell on a Friday--everything was ready in Walnut Tree Walk for Mr. Boddy's arrival. The overcoat, purchased by Lydia after a vast amount of comparing and selecting, of deciding and rejecting and redeciding, was carefully hidden, to be produced at a suitable moment. The bitter coldness of the day gladdened the girls now that they knew the old man would go away well wrapped up. This coat had furnished a subject for many an hour of talk between them, and now as they waited they amused themselves with anticipation of what Mr. Boddy would say, what he would think, how joyfully he would throw aside that one overcoat he did possess--a garment really too far gone, and with no pretence of warmth in it. Thyrza introduced a note of sadness by asking:
'What 'll happen, Lyddy, if he gets that he can't earn any thing?'
'I sometimes think of that,' Lydia replied gravely. 'We couldn't expect the Bowers to keep him there if be couldn't pay his rent. But I always hope that we shall be able to find what he needs. It isn't much, poor grandad! And you see we can always manage to save something, Thyrza.'
'But it wouldn't be enough--nothing like enough for a room and meals, Lyddy.'
'Oh, we shall find a way Perhaps'--she laughed--'we shall have more money some day.'
Two rings at the bell on the lower landing announced their visitor's arrival. Lydia ran downstairs and returned with the old man, whose face was very red from the raw air. He had a muffler wrapped about his neck, but the veteran overcoat was left behind, for the simple reason that Mr. Boddy felt he looked more respectable without it. His threadbare black suit had been subjected to vigorous brushing, with a little exercise of the needle here and there. A pair of woollen gloves, long kept for occasions of ceremony, were the most substantial article of clothing that he wore. A baize bag, of which Lydia had relieved him, contained his violin.
'I thought you'd maybe like a little music, my dear,' he said as he kissed Thyrza. 'It's cheerin' when you don't feel quite the thing. I doubt you can't sing though.'
'Oh, the cold's all gone,' replied Thyrza. 'We'll see, after tea.'
They made much of him, and it must have been very sweet to the poor old fellow to be so affectionately tended by these whom he loved as his own children.
Mary Bower came not long after tea, then Mr. Boddy took out his violin from the bag and played all the favourite old tunes, those which brought back their childhood to the two girls. To please Mary, Lydia asked for a hymn-tune, one she had grown fond of in chapel. Mary began to sing it, so Lydia got her hymn-book and asked Thyrza to sing with them. The air was a sweet one, and Thyrza's voice gave it touching beauty as she sang soft and low. Other hymns followed; Mary Bower fell into her gentler mood and showed how pleasant she could be when nothing irritated her susceptibilities. The hours passed quickly to nine o'clock, then Mary said it was time for her to go.
'Do you want to stay a little longer, Mr. Boddy,' she said, 'or will you go home with me?'
'I'd rather walk home in good company than alone, Miss Mary,' he replied. 'I call it walking, but it's only a stump-stump.'
'But it would he worse if you couldn't walk at all,' Mary said.
'Right, my dear, as you always are. I've no call to grumble. It's a bad habit as grows on me, I fear. If Lyddy 'ad only tell me of it, both together you might do me good. But Lyddy treats me like a spoilt child. It's her old way.'
'Mary shall take us both in hand,' said Lydia. 'She shall cure me of my sharp temper and you of grumbling, grandad; and I know which 'll be the hardest job!'
Laughing with kindly mirth, the old man drew on his woollen gloves and took up his hat and the violin-bag. Then he offered to say good-bye.
'But you're forgetting your top-coat, grandad,' said Lydia.
'I didn't come in it, my dear.'
'What's that, then? I'm sure we don't wear such things.'
She pointed to a chair, on which Thyrza had just artfully spread the gift. Mr. Boddy looked in a puzzled way; had he really come in his coat and forgotten it? He drew nearer.
'That's no coat o' mine, Lyddy,' he said.
Thyrza broke into a laugh.
'Why, whose is it, then?' she exclaimed. 'Don't play tricks, grandad; put it on at once!'
'Now come, come; you're keeping Mary waiting,' said Lydia, catching up the coat and holding it ready.
Then Mr. Boddy understood. He looked from Lydia to Thyrza with dimmed eyes.
'I've a good mind never to speak to either of you again,' he said in a tremulous voice. 'As if you hadn't need enough of your money! Lyddy, Lyddy! And you're as bad, Thyrza; a grown-up woman like you, you ought to teach your sister better. Why there; it's no good; I don't know what to say to you. Now what do you think of this, Mary?'
Lydia still held up the coat, and at length persuaded the old man to don it. The effect upon his appearance was remarkable; conscious of it, he held himself more upright and stumped to the little square of looking-glass to try and regard himself. Here he furtively brushed a hand over his eyes.
'I'm ready, Mary, my dear; I'm ready! It's no good saying anything to girls like these. Good-bye, Lyddy; good-bye, Thyrza. May you have a many happy Christmas, children! This isn't the first as you've made a happy one for me'
Lydia went down to the door and watched the two till they were lost in darkness. Then she returned to her sister with a sigh of gladness. For the moment she had no trouble of her own.
Upon days of festival, kept in howsoever quiet and pure a spirit, there of necessity follows depression; all mirth is unnatural to the reflective mind, and even the unconscious suffer a mysterious penalty when they have wrested one whole day from fate. On the Saturday Lydia had no work to go to, and the hours dragged. In the course of the morning she went out to make some purchases. She was passing Mrs. Bower's without intention of entering, when Mary appeared in the doorway and beckoned her. Mrs. Bower was out; Mary had been left in charge of the shop.
'You were asking me about Mr. Ackroyd,' she said, when they had gone into the parlour. 'Would you like to know something I heard about him last night?'
Lydia knew that it was something disagreeable; Mary's air of discharging a duty sufficiently proved that.
'What is it?' she asked coldly.
'They were talking about him here when I came back last night. He's begun to go about with that girl Totty Nancarrow.'
Lydia cast down her eyes. Mary keeping silence, she said:
'Well, what if he has?'
'I think it's right you should know, on Thyrza's account.'
'Thyrza has nothing to do with Mr. Ackroyd; you know that, Mary.'
'But there's something else. He's begun to drink, Lydia. Mr. Raggles saw him in a public-house somewhere last night, and he was quite tipsy.'
Lydia said nothing. She held a market bag before her, and her white knuckles proved how tightly she clutched the handles.
'You remember what I once said,' Mary continued. There was absolutely no malice in her tone, but mere satisfaction in proving that the premises whence her conclusions had been drawn were undeniably sound. She was actuated neither by personal dislike of Ackroyd nor by jealousy; but she could not resist this temptation of illustrating her principles by such a noteworthy instance. 'Now wasn't I right, Lydia?'
Lydia looked up with hot cheeks.
'I don't believe it!' she said vehemently. 'Who's Mr. Raggles? How do you know he tells the truth?--And what is it to me, whether it's true or not?'
'You were so sure that it made no difference what any one believed, Lydia,' said the other, with calm persistency.
'And I say the same still, and I always will say it? You're glad when anybody speaks against Mr. Ackroyd, and you'd believe them, whatever they said. I'll never go to chapel again with you, Mary, as long as I live! You're unkind, and it's your chapel-going that makes you so! You'd no business to call me in to tell me things of this kind. After to-day, please don't mention Mr. Ackroyd's name; you know nothing at all about him.'
Without waiting for a reply she left the parlour and went on her way. Mary was rather pale, but she felt convinced of the truth of what she had reported, and she had done her plain duty in drawing the lesson. Whether Lydia would acknowledge that seemed doubtful. The outburst of anger confirmed Mary in strange suspicions which had for some time lurked in her mind.
On Sunday evening Lydia dressed as if to go to chapel, and left the house at the usual hour. She had heard nothing from Mary Bower, and her resentment was yet warm. She did not like to tell Thyrza what had happened, but went out to spend the time as best she could.
Almost as soon as her sister was gone Thyrza paid a little attention to her dress and went downstairs. She knocked at the Grails' parlour; it was Gilbert's voice that answered.
'Isn't Mrs. Grail in?' she asked timidly, looking about the room.
'Yes, she's in, Miss Trent, but she doesn't feel very well. She went to lie down after tea.'
'Oh, I'm sorry.'
She hesitated, just within the door.
'Would you like to go to her room?' Gilbert asked.
'Perhaps she's asleep; I mustn't disturb her. Would you lend me another book, Mr. Grail?'
'Oh, yes! Will you come and choose one?'
She closed the door and went forward to the bookcase, on her way glancing at Gilbert's face, to see whether he was annoyed at her disturbing him. It was scarcely that, yet unmistakably his countenance was troubled. This made Thyrza nervous; she did not look at him again for a few moments, but carried her eyes along the shelves. Poor little one, the titles were no help to her. Gilbert knew that well enough, but he was watching her by stealth, and forgot to speak.
'What do you think would do for me, Mr. Grail?' she said at length. 'It mustn't be anything very hard, you know.'
Saying that, she met his eyes. There was a smile in them, and one so reassuring, so--she knew not what--that she was tempted to add:
'You know best what I want. I shall trust you.'
Something shook the man from head to foot. The words which came from him were involuntary; he heard them as if another had spoken.
'You trust me? You believe that I would do my best to please you?'
Thyrza felt a strangeness in his words, but replied to them with a frank smile:
'I think so, Mr. Grail.'
He was holding his hand to her; mechanically she gave hers. But in the doing it she became frightened; his face had altered, it was as if he suffered a horrible pain. Then she heard:
'Will you trust your life to me, Thyrza?'
It was like a flash, dazzling her brain. Never in her idlest moment had she strayed into a thought of this. He had always seemed to her comparatively an old man, and his gravity would in itself have prevented her from viewing him as a possible suitor. He seemed so buried in his books; he was so unlike the men who had troubled her with attentions hitherto. Yet he held her hand, and surely his words could have but one meaning.
Gilbert saw how disconcerted, how almost shocked, she was.
'I didn't mean to say that at once,' he continued hurriedly, releasing her hand. 'I've been too hasty. You didn't expect that. It isn't fair to you. Will you sit down?'
He still spoke without guidance of his tongue. He was impelled by a vast tenderness; the startled look on her face made him reproach himself; he sought to soothe her, and was incoherent, awkward. As if in implicit obedience, she moved to a chair. He stood gazing at her, and the love which had at length burst from the dark depths seized upon all his being.
She began, but her voice failed. She looked at him, and he was smitten to the heart to see that there were tears in her eyes.
'If it gives you pain,' he said in a low voice, drawing near to her, 'forget that I said anything. I wouldn't for my life make you feel unhappy.'
Thyrza smiled through her tears. She saw how gentle his expression had become; his voice touched her. The reverence which she had always felt for him grew warmer under his gaze, till it was almost the affection of a child for a father.
'But should I be the right kind of wife for you, Mr. Grail?' she asked, with a strange simplicity and diffidence. 'I know so little.'
'Can you think of being my wife?' he said, in tones that shook with restrained emotion. 'I am so much older than you, but you are the first for whom I have ever felt love. And'--here he tried to smile --'it is very sure that I shall love you as long as I live.'
Her breast heaved; she held out both her hands to him and said quickly:
'Yes, I will marry you, Mr. Grail. I will try my best to be a good wife to you.'
He stood as if doubting. Both her hands were together in his he searched her blue eyes, and their depths rendered to him a sweetness and purity before which his heart bowed in worship. Then he leaned forward and kissed her forehead.
Thyrza reddened and kept her eyes down.
'May I go now?' she said, when, after kissing her hands, he had released them at the first feeling that they were being drawn away.
'If you wish to, Thyrza.'
'I'll stay if you like, Mr. Grail, but--I think--'
She had risen. The warmth would not pass from her cheeks, and the sensation prevented her from looking up; she desired to escape and be alone.
'Will you come down and speak to mother in the morning?' Gilbert said, relieving her from the necessity of adding more. 'She will have something to tell you.'
'Yes, I'll come. Good-night, Mr. Grail.'
Both had forgotten the book that was to have been selected. Thyrza gave her hand as she always did when taking leave of him, save that she could not meet his eyes. He held it a little longer than usual, then saw her turn and leave the room hurriedly.
An hour later, when Mrs. Grail came into the parlour, Gilbert drew from its envelope and handed to her the letter he had received from Egremont on Christmas Eve. She read it, and turned round to him with astonishment.
'Why didn't you tell me this, child? Well now, if I didn't think there was something that night! Have you answered? Oh no, you're not to answer for a week.'
'What's your advice?'
'Eh, how that reminds me of your father!' the old lady exclaimed. 'I've heard him speak just with that voice and that look many a time. Well, well, my dear, it's only waiting, you see; something comes soon or late to those that deserve it. I'm glad I've lived to see this, Gilbert.'
He said, when they had talked of it for a few minutes:
'Will you show this to Thyrza to-morrow morning?'
She fixed her eyes on him, over the top of her spectacles, keenly.
'To be sure I will. Yes, yes, of course I will.'
'She's been here for a few minutes since tea. I told her if she'd come down in the morning you'd have something to tell her.'
'She's been here? But why didn't you call me? I must go up and speak.'
'Not to-night, mother. It was better that you weren't here. I had something to say to her--something I wanted to say before she heard of this. Now she has a right to know.'
Lydia returned shortly after eight o'clock. She had walked about aimlessly for an hour and a half, avoiding the places where she was likely to meet anyone she knew. She was chilled and wretched.
Thyrza said nothing till her sister had taken off her hat and jacket and seated herself.
'When did you see Mr. Ackroyd last?' she inquired.
'I'm sure I don't know,' was the reply. 'I passed him in the Walk about a week ago.'
'But, I mean, when did you speak to him?'
'Oh, not for a long time,' said Lydia, smoothing the hair upon her forehead. 'Why?'
'He seems to have forgotten all about me, Lyddy.'
The other looked down into the speaker's face with eyes that were almost startled.
'Why do you say that, dear?'
'Do you think he has?'
'He may have done,' replied Lydia, averting her eyes. 'I don't know. You said you wanted him to, Thyrza.'
'Yes, I did--in that way. But I asked him to be friends with us, I don't see why he should keep away from us altogether.'
'But it's only what you had to expect,' said Lydia, rather coldly. In a moment, however, she had altered her voice to add: 'He couldn't be friends with us in the way you mean, dear. Have you been thinking about him?'
She showed some anxiety.
'Yes,' said Thyrza, 'I often think about him--but not because I'm sorry for what I did. I shall never be sorry for that. Shall I tell you why? It's something you'd never guess if you tried all night. You could no more guess it than you could--I don't know what!'
Lydia looked inquiringly.
'Put your arm round me and have a nice face. As soon as you'd gone to chapel, I thought I'd go down and ask Mr. Grail to lend me a book. I went and knocked at the door, and Mr. Grail was there alone. And he asked me to come and choose a book, and we began to talk, and --Lyddy, he asked me if I'd he his wife.'
Lydia's astonishment was for the instant little less than that which had fallen upon Thyrza when she felt her hand in Grail's. Her larger experience, however, speedily brought her to the right point of view; in less time than it would have taken her to express surprise, her wits had arranged a number of little incidents which remained in her memory, and had reviewed them all in the light of this disclosure. This was the meaning of Mr. Grail's reticence, of his apparent coldness at times. Surely she was very dull never to have surmised it. Yet he was so much older than Thyrza; he was so confirmed a student; no, she had never suspected this feeling.
All this in a flash of consciousness, whilst she pressed her sister closer to her side. Then:
'And what did you say, dear?'
'I said I would, Lyddy.'
The elder sister became very grave. She bit first her lower, then her upper lip.
'You said that at once, Thyrza?'
'Yes. I felt I must.'
'You felt you must?'
Thyrza could but inadequately explain what she meant by this. The words involved a truth, but one of which she had no conscious perception. Gilbert Grail was a man of strong personality, and in no previous moment of life had his being so uttered itself in look and word as when involuntarily he revealed his love. More, the vehemence of his feeling went forth in that subtle influence with which forcible natures are able to affect now an individual, now a crowd. Thyrza was very susceptible of such impression; the love which had become all-potent in Gilbert's heart sensibly moved her own. Ackroyd had had no power to touch her so; his ardour had never appealed to her imagination with such constraining reality. Grail was the first to make her conscious of the meaning of passion. It was not passion which rose within her to reply to his, but the childlike security in which she had hitherto lived was at an end; love was henceforth to be the preoccupation of her soul.
She answered her sister:
'I couldn't refuse him. He said he should love me as long as he lived, and I felt that it was true. He didn't try to persuade me, Lyddy. When I showed how surprised I was, he spoke very kindly, and wanted me to have time to think.'
'But, dearest, you say you were surprised. You hadn't thought of such a thing--I'm sure I hadn't. How could you say "yes" at once?'
'But have I done wrong, Lyddy?'
Lydia was again busy with conjecture, in woman's way rapidly reading secrets by help of memory and intuition. She connected this event with what Mary Bower had reported to her of Ackroyd. If it were indeed true that Ackroyd no longer made pretence of loyalty to his old love, would not Grail's knowledge of that change account for his sudden abandonment of disguise? The two were friends; Grail might well have shrunk from entering into rivalry with the younger man. She felt a convincing clearness in this. Then it was true that Ackroyd had begun to show an interest in Totty Nancarrow; it was true, she added bitterly, connecting it closely with the other fact, that he haunted public-houses. Something of that habit she had heard formerly, but thought of it as long abandoned. How would he hear of Thyrza's having pledged herself! Assuredly he had not forgotten her. She knew him; he could not forget so lightly; it was Thyrza's disregard that had driven him into folly.
Her sister was repeating the question.
'Oh, why couldn't you feel in the same way to--to the other, Thyrza?' burst from Lydia. 'He loved you and he still loves you. Why didn't you try to feel for him? You don't love Mr. Grail.'
Thyrza drew a little apart.
'I feel I shall be glad to be his wife,' she said firmly. 'I felt I must say "yes," and I don't think I shall ever be sorry. I could never have said "yes" to Mr. Ackroyd, Lyddy!' She sprang forward and held her sister again. 'You know why I couldn't! You can't keep secrets from me, though you could from any one else. You know why I could never have wished to marry him!'
They held each other in that unity of perfect love which had hallowed so many moments of their lives. Lydia's face was hidden. But at length she raised it, to ask solemnly:
'It was not because you thought this that you promised Mr. Grail?'
'No, no, no!'
'Blue-eyes, nobody 'll ever love me but you. And I don't think I shall ever have a sad minute if I see that you're happy. I do hope you've done right.'
'I'm sure I have, Lyddy. You must tell Mary to-morrow. And grandad-- think how surprised they'll be! Of course, everybody'll know soon. I shall go to work to-morrow, you know I'm quite well again. And Lyddy, when I'm Mrs. Grail of course, Mr. Ackroyd 'll come and see us.'
Lydia made no reply to this. She could not tell what had happened between herself and Mary Bower, and the mention of Ackroyd's name was now a distress to her. She moved from her seat, saying that it was long past supper-time.
Thyrza went down to see Mrs. Grail next morning just before setting out for work. The piece of news was communicated to her, and she hastened with it to her sister. But Gilbert had requested that they would as yet speak of it to no one; it was better to wait till Mr. Egremont had himself made the fact known among the members of his class. Lydia was much impressed with Gilbert's behaviour in keeping that good fortune a secret in the interview with Thyrza. It heightened her already high opinion of him, and encouraged her to look forward with hope. Yet hope would not come without much bidding; doubts and anxieties knocked only too freely at her heart.
One evening Lydia, returning from making a purchase for Mrs. Grail, met Ackroyd. It was at the Kennington Road end of Walnut Tree Walk. He seemed to be waiting. He raised his hat; Lydia bent her head and walked past; but a quick step sounded behind her.
'Miss Trent! Will you stop a minute?'
She turned. Luke held out his hand.
'It's a long time since we spoke a word,' he said, with friendliness. 'But we're not always going to pass each other like that, are we?'
Lydia smiled; it was all she could do. She did not know for certain that he had yet heard the news.
'I want you,' he continued 'to give your sister my good wishes. Will you?'
'Yes, I will, Mr. Ackroyd.'
'Grail came and told me all about it. It wasn't pleasant to hear, but he's a good fellow and I'm not surprised at his luck. I haven't felt I wanted to quarrel with him, and I think better of myself for that. And yet it means a good deal to me--more than you think, I dare say.'
'You'll soon forget it, Mr. Ackroyd,' Lydia said, in a clear, steady voice.
'Well, you 'll see if I do. I'm one of the unlucky fellows that can never show what they feel. It all comes out in the wrong way. It doesn't matter much now.'
Lydia had a feeling that this was not wholly sincere. He seemed to take a pleasure in representing himself as luckless. Combined with what she had heard, it helped her to say:
'A man doesn't suffer much from these things. You'll soon be cheerful again. Good-bye, Mr. Ackroyd.'
She did not wait for anything more from him.