Thyrza by George Gissing
Chapter XII. Lights and Shadows
Egremont's face, it was true, showed that things were not altogether well with him. It was not ill-health, but mental restlessness, which expressed itself in the lines of his forehead and the diminished brightness of his eyes. During the last two months of the year he had felt a constant need of help, and help such as would alone stead him he could not find.
It was no mere failing of purpose. He prepared his lectures as thoroughly as ever, and delivered them with no less zeal than in the first weeks; indeed, if anything, his energy grew, for, since his nearer acquaintance with Gilbert Grail, the latter's face before him was always an incentive. There was much to discourage him. More than half his class fell from lukewarmness to patent indifference; they would probably present themselves until the end of the course, but it was little likely that they would recommence with him after Christmas. He was obliged to recognise the utter absence of idealism from all save Grail--unless Bunce might be credited with glimmerings of the true light. Yet intellectually he held himself on firm ground. To have discovered one man such as Grail was compensation for failure with many others, and the project of the library was at all times a vista of hope. But Egremont was not of those who can live on altruism. His life of loneliness irked him, irked him as never yet. The dawn was a recurrence of weariness; the long nights were cold and blank.
The old unrest, which he had believed at an end when once 'the task of his life' was discovered, troubled him through many a cloud-enveloped day. Had he been free, it would have driven him on new travels. Yet that was no longer a real resource. He did not desire to see other lands, but to make a home in his own. And no home was promised him. The longer he kept apart from Annabel, the dimmer did the vision of her become; he held it a sign that he himself was seldom if ever in her mind. Did he still love her? Rather he would have said that there lay in him great faculty of love, which Annabel, if she willed it, could at a moment bring into life; she, he believed, in preference to any woman he had known. It was not passion, and the consciousness that it was not, often depressed him. One of his ideals was that of a passion nurtured to be the crowning glory of life. He did not love Annabel in that way; would that he could have done!
This purely personal distress could not but affect his work. A month before the end of the year he came to the resolve to choose a new subject for the succeeding course of lectures. Forgetting all the sound arguments by which he had been led to prefer the simple teaching of a straightforward subject to any more ambitious prophecy, he was now impelled to think out a series of discourses on --well, on things in general. He got hold of the title, 'Thoughts for the Present,' and the temptation to make use of it proved too great. English literature did not hold the average proletarian mind. It had served him to make an acquaintance with a little group of men; now he must address them in a bolder way, reveal to them his personality. Had he not always contemplated such revelation in the end? Yes, when he found his class fit for it. But he was growing impatient with this slow progress--if indeed it could be called progress at all. He would strike a more significant note.
Walter was in danger, as you very well understand. There is no need at this time of day to remind ourselves of teachers who have fallen into the fatal springe of apostolicism. Men would so fain be prophets, when once they have a fellow mortal by the ear. Egremont could have exposed this risk to you as well as any, yet he deliberately ignored it in his own case--no great novelty that. 'Have I not something veritably to say? Are not thoughts of and for the present surging in my mind? Whereto have we language if not for the purpose of uttering the soul within us?' So he fell to work on his introductory lecture, and for a few days had peace--nay, lived in enthusiasm once more.
His week of absence at Christmas, of which we have heard, was spent again in Jersey. To the roaring music of the Channel breakers he built up his towers and battlements of prophecy. More, he wrote a poem, and for a day wondered whether it might be well to read it to his audience as preface. A friendly sprite whispered in his ear, and saved him from too utter folly. The sprite had not yet forsaken him; woe to him if ever it should! He wrapped the poem in a letter to Mr. Newthorpe, and had a very pleasant reply, written, as he afterwards heard, only a day or two before Mr. Newthorpe fell ill. Annabel sent her message; 'the verses were noble, and pure as the sea-foam.'
On returning to town, he sent a note to Grail, asking him to come in the evening to Great Russell Street or, if that were inconvenient, to appoint a time for a meeting in Walnut Tree Walk. Gilbert accepted the invitation, and came for the first time to Egremont's rooms.
Things were not ill with him, Gilbert Grail. You saw in the man's visage that he had put off ten years of haggard life. His dark, deep eyes spoke their meanings with the ardour of soul's joy; his cheeks seemed to have filled out, his brows to have smoothed. It was joy of the purest and manliest. His life had sailed like some battered, dun-coloured vessel into a fair harbour of sunlight and blue, and hands were busy giving to it a brave new aspect. He could scarce think of all his happiness at once; the coming release from a hateful drudgery, and the coming day which would put Thyrza's hand in his, would not go into one perspective. Sometimes he would all but forget the one in thinking of the other. Now let the early mornings be dark and chill as they would, let the sky lower in its muddy gloom, let weariness of the flesh do its worst--those two days were approaching. Why, was he not yet young? What are five-and-thirty years behind one, when bliss unutterable beckons forward? It should all be forgotten, that grimy past poisoned through and through with the stench of candles. Books, books, and time to use them, and a hearth about which love is busy--what more can you offer son of man than these?
He had written his acceptance, had endeavoured to write his thanks. The words were ineffectual.
Egremont received him in his study with gladness. This man had impressed him powerfully, was winning an ever larger place in his affection. He welcomed him as he would have done an old friend, for whose coming he had looked with impatience.
'Do you smoke?' he asked.
No, Gilbert did not smoke. The money he formerly spent on this had long been saved for the purchase of books. Egremont's after-dinner coffee had to suffice to make cheer. It was a little time before Grail could speak freely. He had suffered from nervousness in undertaking this visit, and his relief at the simplicity of Egremont's rooms, by allowing him to think of what he wished to say, caused him to seem absent.
'I've already begun to jot down lists of obvious books,' Egremont said. 'I have a good general catalogue here, and I mean to go through it carefully.'
Gilbert was at length able to speak his thought.
'I ought to have said far more than I did in my letter, Mr. Egremont. I tried to thank you, but I felt I might as well have left it alone. I don't know whether you have any idea what this change will mean to me. It's more than saving my life, it's giving me a new one such as I never dared to hope for.'
'I'm right glad to hear it!' Walter replied, with his kindest look. 'It comes to make up to me for some little disappointment in other things. I'm afraid the lectures have been of very slight use.'
'I don't think that. I don't think any of the class 'll forget them. It's likely they'll have their best effect in a little time; the men 'll think back upon them. Now Bunce has got much out of them, I believe.'
'Ah, Bunce! Yes, I hoped something from him. By-the-by, he is rather a violent enemy of Christianity, I think?'
'I've heard so. I don't know him myself, except for meeting him at the lectures. Yes, I've heard he's sometimes almost mad about religious subjects.'
Egremont told the story about Bunce's child, which he had had from Mrs. Ormonde. And this led him on to speak of his purpose in this new course of lectures. After describing his plan:
'And that matter of religion is one I wish to speak of most earnestly. I think I can put forward a few ideas which will help a man like Bunce. He wants to be made to see the attitude of a man who retains no dogma, and yet is far more a friend than an enemy of Christianity. I think that lecture shall come first.'
He had not yet made ready his syllabus. As before, he meant to send it to those whose names were upon his list. His first evening would be at the beginning of February.
'I shall try with Ackroyd again,' he said. 'Perhaps the subject this time will seem more attractive to him.'
Gilbert looked grave.
'I'm anxious about Ackroyd,' he replied. 'He's had private trouble lately, and I begin to be afraid it's driving him into the wrong road. He isn't one that can easily be persuaded. I wish you might succeed in bringing him to the lectures.'
Egremont tried to speak hopefully, but in secret he felt that his power over men was not that which draws them from the way of evil and turns them to light. For that is needed more than love of the beautiful. For a moment he mused in misgiving over his 'Thoughts for the Present.'
They began to talk of those details in the library scheme which Egremont had left for subsequent discussion.
'As soon as the premises are in my hands,' he said, 'I shall have the house thoroughly repaired. I should like you to see then if any alteration can be made which would add to your comfort. As soon as the place can be made ready, it will be yours to take possession of. That should be certainly by the end of April. Shall you be free to leave your present occupation then?'
'I can at any time. But I am glad to have a date fixed. I'm going to be married then.'
It was said with a curious diffidence which brought a smile to the hearer's face. Egremont was surprised at the intelligence, glad at the same time.
'That is good news,' he said. 'Of course I had thought of you living with your mother. This will be better still. Your future wife must, of course, examine the house; no doubt she'll be a far better judge than you of what needs doing. When you are back from your honeymoon we shall go to work together on arranging books. That'll be a rare time! We shall throw up our arms, like Dominie Sampson, and cry "Prodigious!"'
He grew mirthful, indulging the boyish humour which, as a reaction from his accustomed lonely silence, came upon him when he had a sympathetic companion. To Gilbert this was a new phase of Egremont's character; he, sober in happiness, answered the young man's merriment with an expressive smile.
Grail had merely mentioned the fact of his intended marriage. When he was alone, Egremont wondered much within himself what kind of woman such a man might have chosen to share his life. Had he contemplated marriage for some time, and been prevented from it by stress of circumstances? It was not easy to picture the suitable partner for Grail. Clearly she must be another than the thriftless, shiftless creature too common in working-class homes. Yet it was not likely that he had met with any one who could share his inner life. Had he, following the example of many a prudent man, chosen a good, quiet, modest woman, whose first and last anxiety would be to keep his home in order and see that he lacked no comfort within her province to bestow? It was probable. She would no doubt be past youth; suppose her thirty. She would have a face which pleased by its homely goodness; she would speak in a gentle voice, waiting upon superior wisdom.
A few days before that appointed for the first lecture of this new course, Egremont received a letter of which the address surprised him. It bore the Penrith post-mark; the writing must be Annabel's. He had very recently written to Mr. Newthorpe, who was not yet well enough to attempt the journey southwards; this reply by another hand might signify ill news. And that proved to be the case. Annabel wrote:
'Dear Mr. Egremont,--Father desires me to answer your very kind letter of a week ago. He has delayed, hoping from day to day to be able to write himself. I grieve to say that he is suffering more than at any time in the last month. I am very anxious, full of trouble. Mrs. Tyrrell wishes to come to me, and I am writing by this post to say that I shall be very glad of her presence. Our doctors say there is absolutely no ground for fear, and gladly I give them my faith; but it tortures me to see my dear father so overcome with pain. The world seems to me very dark, and life a dreadful penalty.
'We read with the greatest interest of what you are doing and hoping. I cannot tell you how we rejoiced in the happiness of Mr. Grail. That is a glorious thing that you have done. I trust his marriage may be a very happy one. When we are at Eastbourne and father is well again, we must come to see your library and no less your librarian. Do not be discouraged if your lectures seem to fail of immediate results. Surely good work will have fruit, and very likely in ways of which you will never know.
'The Tyrrells will have constant news of father, and I am sure will gladly send it on to you.--I am, dear Mr. Egremont, yours sincerely,
It was the first letter he had received from Annabel. For some days he kept it close at hand, and looked over it frequently; then it was laid away with care, not again to be read until the passing of years had given it both a sadder and a dearer significance.